Friday, August 28, 2009

A Game for You

Lately I've been working on honing the manuscript. I checked out a copy of Kate L. Turabian's Manual for Writers of Theses, Disertations, etc. I'm trying to remember the proper Chicago style for footnotes, and I bet that would be super boring for you guys, so here's a game instead.

This citation comes from the Children's Friend, July 1975 page 40. How many anachronisms can you spot? Post your findings in the comments section.

"Pioneer Hardtack
Hardtack is an old-fashioned flatbread or sea biscuit that was popular with pioneers and sailors because it was lightweight, compact, tasty, and stored well. And it is just as delicious today and handy, too, for hiking, backpacking, or snacking. Here is a recipe for hardtack:

4 cups flour (white, whole wheat, graham, rye, barley, or any combination of flours you like)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups buttermilk, yogurt, cream, or sweet milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 400° and measure into large bowl.

2. Mix well and form dough into a ball, then divide dough and roll out a small portion (about the size of a tennis ball) at a time.

3. Roll dough on lightly floured surface as thin as you can. The thinner you roll it, the better the hardtack will taste.

4. Sprinkle rolled-out dough lightly with salt if you wish, cut to any shape desired, and place pieces close together on greased cookie sheet.

5. Bake until edges begin to brown. Remove cookie sheet from oven, turn hardtack over, and bake until it is crisp and dry and lightly browned.

6. As soon as the hardtack is baked, put on rack to cool. Store hardtack in airtight container, and it will stay fresh as long as it is kept dry.

This pioneer hardtack is delicious served plain or with jam, peanut butter, cheese, meat spreads, or whatever you like. Try seasoning the crackers by adding onion powder, cheese, barbecue sauce, bacon bits, herbs, or spices to the dough."

Friday, August 21, 2009


Yesterday before going up to the pioneer village for my weekly food adventure, I stopped at the LDS Church Historical Archives. The new building is really nice, but the service is still really slow, and it appears they still keep a very careful watch on everything they let you read. Most of the helpers are senior citizen missionaries who don't know much about history or archiving, but if you know what you want, you can usually get something helpful.

I was looking for information about ceramic pots and crocks. I have a chapter that talks about the physical artifacts of pioneer cookery separate from the perishable food itself. I had most of the chapter, but I was missing the section about ceramics. Here's what I learned.

There was a wave of potters who immigrated to Utah from Staffordshire, England. Yeah. So there were people here in Utah making pots who were as skilled as any in the world. There was also a group of potters who came from Denmark. Most of what these potters made were food containers, though they also made some flower pots and chimney tiles. I always had the impression that if you had a crock, you cherished it and protected it and passed it through generations. But yesterday I learned that crocks were considered much more disposable, a lot like we use Mason jars. As a result, Utah's annual production of crockery peaked in September. Potters boosted their production as house wives bought more to replace what had broken during the year as they got ready for the fruit harvest.

A lot of the Utah pots and crocks are marked so you can identify them, and they are highly collectible. So much that you probably wouldn't really want to collect them unless you were already crazy that way and the recession wasn't a factor in your life. So... I don't collect Utah ceramics. I just play with food. Yesterday I made sauerkraut up at the pioneer village, and I put it in a 3 gallon crock to ferment. Its not a particularly special crock. It was made by Western Pottery Manufacturing Co. in Denver, probably in the early 20th century. Any normal person would just use a plastic Homer bucket from the Home Despot.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Need a little help from my friends

I'm just about ready to start passing out copies of the manuscript I've been working on for the past year (or so) before submitting it to the publisher. Of course its about the subject at hand (mormon pioneer food). My main concern is that the tone I use might be off-putting to some, boring to others, etc. And as I've been thinking about it, I imagine that you folks out there are the main audience I would want to attract. But I really don't know you much at all. And out of the last five posts I've written, not a single comment. So sometimes I wonder if I'm just missing the mark entirely.

How about if a few of you just take a minute to introduce yourselves a bit in the comments section, and tell us a bit about what sort of cooking you do, and what interests you most in this conversation. Thanks!

Monday, August 17, 2009

"plain but wholesome"

Last night for dinner I made sushi. I made the usual California rolls, because it is cucumber season of course, but I also made a spicy tuna roll. I also made a miso soup, and my wife made some quick pickles as tsukemono. It was a really nice meal. Two nights ago, I made a Thai curry. It was a yellow curry, with chicken, potatoes, and onions in a cocoanut milk base with some ground peanuts (read: peanut butter). It was pretty tasty. We eat quite a bit of Asian food in our house, but three nights ago we had taco salad. This morning I'm making hashbrowns for breakfast. How would I describe the food in our house from a general overview?

So as I'm writing this stuff about Mormon pioneer food, I'm trying to describe what the common threads were in their daily meals. Eliza Brockbank Hales summed up the diet of her youth with the preface, "I was born in a one-room home in Spanish Fork." She says, "Our food was plain but wholesome. We had milk, home-made bread, vegetables, dried fruit, and meat. Our home cured. hams were tops. We also had a barrel of corned beef and a good root cellar for potatoes, apples, vegetables and so on."

So there you have it: the typical Mormon pioneer diet. How would you describe yours?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

mmm... Pudding

Right now I'm working on what I hope will be the last chapter in the book before I submit to the publisher. My own palate leans toward the savory, so this chapter on sweets has been difficult going. I think I'm on a roll now though, with 3,000 words down so far.

I was very fortunate to stumble across a recipe from Sarah Annie Clark Hale, who married my great great grandfather Alma Helaman Hale. Before I say more, let me just make this preface. Puddings in the 18th and 19th century were a food group of their own. I think puddings probably showed up at half of all suppers. Puddings come in an incredible diversity of styles, shapes and flavors. Most of us are familiar with custard puddings (think blancmange or creme' fraish). Some of us still have a bread pudding or carrot pudding at Christmas time. A few of us have even tried haggis, that Scottish pudding steamed or boiled in an intestine. Of course Yorkshire pudding still has a solid place in the UK.

Sarah's pudding is a plum pudding, typical for Christmas or fancy winter occasions. When we say plum pudding, we always mean raisins. Sarah's pudding comes from the old-school tradition of mixing up a batter with eggs, flour, breadcrumbs, etc., and then boiling it in a cloth bag for hours. More modern recipes call for steaming in a specially made pudding tin, or even baking it in a ceramic dish. With no further ado, here's Sarah Hale's plum pudding.

"English Plum Pudding
2 bowls flour, 1 bowl suet, 1 bowl raisins, 1 bowl currants, 1 teacup sugar, ½ teaspoon each cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg; a little salt, 2 heaping teaspoons baking powder, 6 eggs. Mix to a stiff batter with milk. Boil 5 or 6 hours in a heavy cloth bag. For the bag use a heavy cloth about 27 inches square wrung out in warm water. Flour the inside well and pour on the batter. Pull up the corners and tie with a strong string leaving just enough room for the pudding to rise. Place upside down in a kettle of boiling water on a rack, so it wont burn on the bottom and keep boiling and fully covered with water in a covered kettle the entire time. Add more boiling water if needed during cooking."

These sweet, spicy winter puddings were often served with a sauce. Sarah also left us her sauce or "dip" recipe:

"2 cups sugar and ¼ pound butter, 1 quart of water and boil until all dissolved. Thicken as for gravy. Flavor with brandy or lemon extract. As a variation, carmelize sugar and butter and just before serving add 1 cup whipped cream. Leave out flavoring."

Well... you should probably be making a more plain flour pudding at this summer season, something more like a yorkshire, but I was so excited about this one I just had to share it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Well look at me, blogging three days in a row. I went up to the pioneer village today to play with food whilst wearing funny old fashioned clothes. You may recall I recently wrote about Louis Pasteur and his studies of fermentation. After that little adventure I looked into cheese making, since it is a fermenting process. Did you know that? Yes, its the lactose sugars that get gobbled up by bacteria in the very same way that sucrose sugars get gobbled in beer making, or glucose gets gobbled in bread making. Its all fermentation, folks.

SO ANYWAY, I found this little pioneer descrip about cheese making, from my favorite pioneer lady, Emily Barnes:
“When our neighbors wanted to make cheese, we would in turn take milk to them, so every few weeks we had a cheese.We had a tub that we kept for that purpose. We would get all the milk warm and put it in the tub; then we would cut a piece of ‘rennet’ as we called the inner skin of a calf’s stomach, and let it soak in a little warm water overnight. In the morning we would pour this into the milk, which in a little while would set up like clabber. Then we would dip off the whey for which we had a pan with holes in it; and after putting a white cloth on it we would put some large rocks on it to hold it down.”

Of course, like many descriptions, she leaves a lot out. Partly she leaves things out because she didn't know what was happening with the microbiology, but she also leaves things out just for sheer forgetfulness.

"We would get all the milk warm and put it in the tub." Here she's talking about a wooden cheese making tub. She borrowed a tub to do laundry. The wooden tub became saturated with bacteria so that by putting the milk in the tub, she essentially introduced a bacteria culture. When I made cheese today at the pioneer village, I used a quart of cultured buttermilk. The culture is what does the fermenting. Some simple cheeses simply curdle the milk but don't ferment. These must be eaten right away.

"then we would cut a piece of ‘rennet’ as we called the inner skin of a calf’s stomach" Here she is talking about the process of setting the curd. By setting the curd, she sets the stage for separating the milk solids from the whey. But she never says "curd." You'd think anyone who has a chance to say "curd" would just say "curd" at every opportunity.

"Then we would dip off the whey for which we had a pan with holes in it;" So it turns out you can't just dip off the whey. First you have to cut the curd. As the curd is cut into smaller pieces, the exposed surface area of the curds start to express whey. Whey is a clear liquid, somewhat yellowish, and good for feeding to pigs. After the curd is cut, the next step is to heat the curd. As the curd is heated, it gives off even more whey, and it cooks slightly to become more firm.

"after putting a white cloth on it we would put some large rocks on it to hold it down.” But BEFORE putting a white cloth on it, she would have mixed some salt into it. Salt inhibits some bacteria while promoting others. Without the salt, the cheese will spoil before it ferments completely. Also, salt helps to dry the whey out of the curd to make a more firm, dry cheese.

So there you go. Maybe it was her MOTHER that made the cheese while she was young, and she wrote this as an old woman remembering her youth in spotty episodes. Maybe all of these recipes I've been hunting down are full of bologna. Or is it baloney? Whatever...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Appropriate Tone

Last week I went to a family reunion, and I brought my little lappy along. I thought I might get someone in the fam (solid Mormon stock) to read a sample chapter and give me feedback. What happened instead is that I ended up reading a chapter aloud to a handful of adult siblings and spouses. I read the "Beverages" chapter. My older brother picked that one because he thought it would be the most salacious, and I suppose he's probably right.

I try to write like a historian, which is to say, I try to be objective. Usually that means letting the sources tell the story, instead of me spicing it up with my own notions of how things were. But of course, objectivity is usually pretty boring. Everyone who sat in for the reading said that I should let my personality come out more. And also, they wanted more stories, less analysis. I guess that also means fewer recipes, since a recipe isn't a story. Certainly, that would appeal to more of a popular audience. But I'm setting my sights on Utah State University Press, which might mean that I have to play to a more academic audience. And that means objective, not salacious.

Well, here's a little beverage related salaciousness for you. Mormon pioneer Lucia Eugenia Lamb Everett was passing through Iowa and she sent her grown son to a store near where they were camped. She wrote, “One of the boys called at the Kings Store in Iowa and enquired for a pint of brandy, the man filled the bottle, and told him the price was $1.00. He told him, ‘very well, you may turn it back on the cask as I don’t pay any such price, for brandy.’ This seems to be a fair sample of Iowa prices” Naturally, the Mormons also charged non-Mormons passing through Utah high prices when the tables were turned. Personally, I refuse to pay $1 for a pint of brandy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Tonight I went to see Julie & Julia-- that new movie about Julia Child and a blogging crazy woman who made every dish in Julia's book. It was fantastic. Meryl Streep as Julia was impeccable, of course. But most importantly, it inspired me. Julia Child took 8 years to write her book. I've only been working on mine for about two years, and not very diligently at that. That blogger woman wrote every day, and cooked every day. I only write once a week. I don't make everything I write about. I'm such a slacker, and I need to do better.

I was also inspired to cook. Today I went to visit my fine friends at the Crumb Brothers Bakery in Logan, and got all jazzed about baking good bread. I came right home from the movie tonight and mixed up a batch of starter for some bread I'll bake tomorrow. I tells ya, I have a passion.

My bread isn't special, particularly. I mean, its better than just about anything you might buy at the grocery store (especially when its fresh), but really, its just bread. Its not a pioneer recipe exactly, although many old recipes I've read follow in the shadows, and I'm sure a pioneer somewhere made bread like mine. But anyway, I just wanted to share with all of you one of the things that makes me happy.

Brock's Bread:
To 1/2 cup water at room temperature, add 1/2 tsp. dry active yeast. Let it dissolve gently, and swish it around in a small bowl. Add 3/4 cup unbleached white flour. Using a wooden spoon, mix it until it is integrated, then beat vigorously for 100 strokes. Cover and let it sit out for several hours, even overnight.
In the morning, measure two cups of water at room temperature into your large bread mixing bowl. Add 1/2 tsp. dry active yeast to this water and let it dissolve gently. Next, add the starter you made the night before. Break it up with a wooden spoon until it is thoroughly dissolved and becomes slightly frothy. Add 1 cup flour, and mix well. Add 1 Tbs. salt, and continue mixing with the wooden spoon. Gradually add three more cups flour. When it becomes difficult to stir, turn it out on your floured kneading surface. Knead for 15 minutes, adding flour to total about 6 cups or so. When it is well kneaded, clean out the big bowl, grease it with butter, and turn the dough in the bowl until it is coated with butter. Cover and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
After rising, punch the dough down and cover it again. Let it rest 30 minutes. At that time, turn the dough out and briefly knead it again, just a few strokes. Divide the dough into two lumps. Shape it as desired (I use a round loaf), and set it to rise the 2nd time in whatever you have to help it hold shape. Real bakers use a form called a couche but I use little mixing bowls lined with a well floured dish cloth.
When risen, have your oven ready at 450F. I use a baking stone, preheated. Remove the stone from the oven and throw a couple of ice cubes on the floor of the oven. Close the door while you turn the loaves onto the baking stone and let the oven fill with steam. Gently turn the loaves onto the stone, and using a very sharp razor or serrated knife, score the tops of the loaves. Return the stone and loaves to the oven. Bake for 35-40 minutes, reducing to 425 when loaves start to color. Cool on wire racks, or lean against the wall to cool.

This bread gives me joy every time. I hope you like it too. Thanks to Daniel Leader for teaching me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Spontaneous Generation of Mice

I made it back to the library today after having spent the last two weeks giving quality time to the family. I had been working on a chapter about preserved foods, many of which involved fermentation. My objective at the library was to get a footnote for an assertion about Louis Pasteur's contributions to the world of food. I had written something to the effect that although he had done some work regarding yeast and bacteria in the 1860s, his work wasn't accepted as valid until much later. That was an assumption I received from several other food writers, but none of them documented their work. I wanted to find something more concrete.

An initial search of the Deseret News (that pulse of Mormondom) yielded no results. A cursory look at other food history made very little reference to Pasteur, as we have relegated him to medical history. However, looking at his work directly, I found that his initial studies in the 1850s were directly related to yeast fermentation. Yes, we have been here before.

In 1857 there was an active debate about the notion of spontaneous generation. One camp believed that, along the lines of Alchemy, you could put the right elements together and generate something completely unrelated. The origins of these ideas seem to lie in the 1600s with a guy named van Helmont. He had a notion about stuffing an old shirt into a barrel that would create the spontaneous generation of mice in the course of three weeks. Others had similar ideas about the spontaneous generation of frogs from marsh mud, or eels from river water. These ideas persisted into the early 19th century.

In this atmosphere, the question of yeast carried similar arguments. One camp held that if you combine sugar and water, yeast will spontaneously generate. The idea that yeast was a living organism was only settled in 1837 when it was first seen under a microscope. This group also believed that yeast "did its thing" only upon decay. They thought that as yeast cells died, it caused the "decomposition" of the sugars in a like manner.

Pasteur and others such as John Tyndall however believed the opposite. In a series of papers presented to French Academy of Sciences in 1859, Pasteur argued that yeast particles floated in the air, and were attracted to sugary substances which fed them. The Academy sided with Pasteur and awarded him a prize for his work. In later years, John Tyndall asserted the dusty coating on the skins of grapes was yeast (which he had verified by microscope). He put to rest the idea that yeast spontaneously generated in grape juice by showing that wine makers had inadvertently introduced yeast by crushing the whole grape with its yeasty skin.

Even so, not all scientists were convinced. In the face of this evidence, Pasteur's primary detractor Justus von Liebig continued to hold to the decomposition and spontaneous generation theories into the 1870s. Indeed, Tyndall was compelled to continue arguing against spontaneous generation into the 1880s, when Pasteur had moved on to medical applications. The broad popular acceptance of Pasteur's work in the 1850s didn't come until after his rabies vaccine proved its success. Many continued to disbelieve Tyndall's arguments about "Floating-Matter of the Air" and "animalcules" (microbial life forms) nearly to the end of the century.

Today it seems ludicrous to us, this idea that life could just sponaneously generate. Even if we don't thoroughly understand the conversion of lactic enzymes to lactic acid, we understand there is a cause and effect relationship driven by basic scientific principles. A hundred and fifty years after Pasteur, it is part of our popular view of the world. The curious thing to me is that 150 years after Darwin, many people still argue against evolution. I suppose the evolution argument requires a bigger petri dish than we have at the moment.