Friday, October 30, 2009

Cider Time

As fall weather turns cold, it forces apples on the trees to make the final conversion of sugars. Then, its time to press. For Mormon pioneers, apple pies were a nice indulgence, but the main purpose of the crop was for cider and cider vinegar. Brigham Young's daughter Clarissa remembered his cellar in the orchard, where large barrels of hard cider mellowed through the winter.

Last weekend we went to the pioneer village and helped press cider. Here are some photos from that process.

One of the main points of interpretation for the visitors was that apples have yeast on their skins, so any juice from crushed apples will begin fermenting immediately. It was a surprise to many that "juice" was not a common beverage, but instead hard cider. Someone asked "What's the difference between juice and cider?" Shannon replied, "About a week." A French woman asked about this seeming contradiction to Mormon doctrine. I explained that all religions experience change; just as Vatican II under Pope John Paul revolutionized the practice of Catholicism, Mormonism today is much different than Mormonism historically.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Providence Sauerkraut

The first chapter of the forthcoming book focuses heavily on this thing that happens each October in Providence, Utah. Every year for more than a hundred years, the folks who live in Providence get together for a community dinner. They call it the Sauerkraut Dinner. Originally the settlers of the town were predominantly from Switzerland. When they started the tradition, there was still a strong sense of Swiss heritage in the town. Quite a few people still spoke German-Swiss, and naturally, the dinner had a distinct Swiss flavor. The dinner was originally sponsored by the LDS congregations in town. They charged money for the dinner, and the church made a lot of money. Further, there was a bazaar associated with the dinner, and people sold homemade crafts and foods. For example, they made egg noodles, and sold the egg noodles in bags to take home. They canned sauerkraut, and sold cans of sauerkraut. The whole affair had a festive atmosphere, like a party or carnival. Maybe like a Mormon Oktoberfest.

Over the years, the Swiss heritage has been diluted as new subdivisions spring up, and as demographics change. Further, in the 1980s the Church prohibited local fundraising like that, and the tradition ended momentarily. The municipal government stepped in and revamped the dinner, and continues the tradition (sort of). Also, local congregations scaled the dinner down and now they hold it local with no outsiders invited and potluck only, no charge to eat.

Last Saturday was the municipal version of the Sauerkraut Dinner. I went and paid $9.50 to experience it. The dinner part of the experience was catered by Iron Gate Grill. There was no potluck about it. In talking to one of the chefs, I discovered that for the past three years the city required them to use sauerkraut from a professional supplier, whereas before that, it was locally made by folks in town. He told me about seeing a local farmer bring a 55 gallon drum of sauerkraut in the back of his truck, and lifting it off with a fork lift. That kind of thing doesn't happen anymore.

At the head of the line for dinner was a sign reading, "Only one time through please." The dinner was tasty. There was a tossed green salad, cooked carrots, roast turkey (and cranberry sauce), sauerkraut, real mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. The people there were mostly over 60. There were no children whatsoever. There was no entertainment during dinner. I sat with an older couple who had moved to Cache Valley five years ago, from Salt Lake City. They had experienced the Sauerkraut Dinner in their youth, and they said the food was good, but not as good as their long ago memories. The whole dinner experience was rather quiet and somber.

After dinner there was a craft show, with lots of people selling bracelets and necklaces they had made at home. There was no sauerkraut nor noodles for sale.

It seems that if children are not involved in the traditions, then the tradition will soon end. Traditions die when they fail to hold meaning for the participants. This experience brought me to think about how I help to perpetuate the traditions of my local community. It was a little sad to see it declining. Maybe a municipal event can never be as dynamic as a grass root event. I wonder how the city event was different from the ward dinner.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Salt Rising Bread

The answer to last week's puzzler is... Clostridium perfringens. This little bacteria thrives in a very warm, moist saline environment, usually around 113-115 degrees Farenheit. The recipe from last time gives basic direction for creating a petri dish friendly to the bacteria. As the culture progresses, the bacteria multiplies, at the same time exuding gasses which smell like ripe cheese. This is no coincidence-- the same bacteria culture is found in many cheeses, which undergo a 100+ degree culture in their first stage of preparation.

As we mentioned a month or so ago in the post titled, "Spontaneous Generation of Mice" the Mormon pioneers didn't know anything about microbes and bacteria, but they were adept at culturing and manipulating them. This is another example of their skill. Pop cultural understanding of microbiology didn't come around until the 1890s, but Mormon pioneers kept all kinds of cultures going anyway.

In the recipe, it instructs to scald the cornmeal. It seems that it should be scalded in milk. I tried the recipe with water and cornmeal, and it failed to culture. But it worked with milk. Some recipes instruct using potato water instead of milk. If you're really interested in trying to make salt rising bread, first visit this site:

Next time: my review of the Providence Sauerkraut Dinner.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Name That Leavening Agent

Yes, its been slow lately, trying to find something to blog about. So here's a pioneer game for you: Name That Leavening Agent. As you know, pioneers used both chemical and microbial agents to leaven their bread. In either case, they trapped gasses in the dough. From the following recipe, see if you can guess what is causing the gasses that leaven the bread. The recipe comes from The Practical Housekeeper, 1857. Similar recipes were referenced in the Deseret News of our era.

To Make Excellent Bread Without Yeast
Scald about two handfuls of Indian meal; into which put a little salt, and as much cold water as will make it rather warmer than new milk; then stir in wheat flour, till it is as thick as a family pudding, and set it down by the fire to rise. In about half an hour it generally grows thin; you may sprinkle a little fresh flour on the top, and mind to turn the pot round, that it may not bake at the side of it. In three or four hours, if you mind the above directions, it will rise and ferment as if you had set it with hop yeast; when it does, make it up in soft dough, flour a pan, put in your bread, set it before the fire, covered up, turn it round to make it equally warm, and in about half an hour it will be light enough to bake. It suits best to bake it in a Dutch oven, as it should be put into the oven as soon as it is light.

Post your answers in the comment box. I'll send some free saleratus to the winner, drawn at random from all correct answers submitted.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Season's End

Today we decided we're not putting up anything else. The pantry shelves are loaded with the fruits of summer. We did peach preserves, crab apple syrup, hot pepper and apple jelly, salsa, chili sauce, and dozens of quarts of tomatoes. Today, I'm packing away the sauerkraut, which turned out better than expected but with room for improvement. All in all, it gave me quite a connection with the Mormon pioneers in several ways.

I really enjoyed the tangible connection I felt when I was in the garden. Reading Elijah Larkin's diary showed me how his garden was a part of his everyday pioneer life. As I planted, irrigated, hoed and reaped, I often thought of Elijah, escaping to his garden. The garden also helped me connect with the pioneers as I planted heirloom vegetables. Everyone else in the neighborhood planted hybrids. Their corn was neat and orderly and squat, thrusting all of its energy into sugary kernels. My corn was eight feet tall, gangly and chaotic. I sometimes felt like my garden was a bit of a museum, comparatively.

We're still waiting for apples to crush. We haven't yet had a really good frost. But having sauerkraut finished off says that apples can't be far behind. The Providence Sauerkraut Dinner is October 24th, if you're interested: (435) 752-9441. Tickets are $8 in advance. My sauerkraut turned out a little salty, but still very sour, with a nice firm texture. Its hard to find exact dimensions for the salt in small volume recipes. Now I have a better feel for next time.

More than anything, the season has shown me something about the nature of time in the pioneer era. Every decent food experiment I've tried has had a significant time element. The garden, for example, is an endeavor that takes multiple seasons, from spring till fall. Sauerkraut takes six weeks to ferment. Boiling jelly long enough to extract the pectin from the apples takes at least a couple of hours. Bread is all about waiting, sometimes as long as 18 hours. That time factor is probably the biggest element seperating us from pioneer foodways. We would rather open a can and have it now.

Now, I'm looking forward to eating all the food on the shelves through the winter. I love winter.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bob Sorenson, Mormon Wine Maker

As I was passing through Mount Pleasant (otherwise known as "Little Denmark,") I had heard about a wine maker who worked using all sorts of fruit. It turned out that Bob Sorenson had gone out of business a year earlier, but he consented to an interview. When we pulled up in front of his old storefront, it was nearly dark. Getting out of the car, we saw the most beautiful little apple tree. Its fruit was wine colored, skin and flesh. The fruits were chubby and squat. As he came out to greet us, Bob boasted that it was a Russian variety he had grafted from scions.

Bob comes from a Mormon heritage, a Scandinavian from Cache Valley. The Mormon wine-making tradition on the other hand came from Switzerland to Southern Utah. I asked Bob whether he thought there was any remnant of the old Mormon wine tradition from the Dixie days. He explained that many local old-timers used to stop in and share recipes with him, but that contemporary Mormon culture had no room for what he does. He saw a distinct shift in Mormon culture after World War II.

One of Bob's specialties was rhubarb wine. At its peak, his winery was the driving force behind Mount Pleasant's Rhubarb Festival, with pie eating contests, etc. As a basic Utah beverage, rhubarb wine seems to have been a staple in pioneer days. Bob shared some of his research with me, including this extract from The Farmer's Oracle. The Oracle was an agricultural newspaper published by J.E. Johnson (yes the same seedsman previously mentioned) in Utah County.

"A very good beverage can be made of the juice of the common pie-plant; it is not strictly a wine, as that dainty can only come of ripeneed fruit. Dr. Marsh gives the following receipt for making rhubarb wine, which he says is the best remedy for dysentery and diarrheas yet known.--Peel and slice the leaf stock as for pies; put a very small quantity of water in the vessel, only just enough to cover the bottom; cover the vessel and gradually bring to a slight boil, then strain, pressing out all the liquid; to this liquid add an equal quantity of water; to each gallon (after mixed) add four to six poiunds of sweetening, set aside, ferment and skim like currant wine; put it in a cask and leave it in bulk as long as possible. All wine is better kept in casks." --The Farmer's Oracle, Aug. 14, 1863. Spring Lake Villa, Utah County, Utah.

That seems like an awful lot of sugar to add, in my estimation. Bob also shared with me a recipe for rhubarb wine he received from an old-timer in the community. It followed similar lines as above, but with less sugar. The nice part was that the old-timer's recipe showed that the tradition remained active in Utah for at least 100 years. This old fellow also shared local Utah recipes for loganberry wine and potato wine.

Today it seems these traditions are pretty much dead in the Mormon community. Perhaps its just as well. Potato wine seems pretty desperate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Little Denmark"

Last week as we drove down through the San Pete Valley, we picked up a map published by some sort of tourism commission. The map showed three different tourism "zones" in southern Utah, including one called "Little Denmark." This was essentially the San Pete Valley, including Mount Pleasant, Spring City and Ephraim and Manti. It reminded me of a folklore conference I once attended where they discussed cultural expressions that occurred spontaneously, versus consciously manipulated tourism features. Another example would be "Bridgerland" versus Cache Valley. Cache Valley extends beyond Utah's border, but "Bridgerland" (i.e. Utah's portion of the Cache Valley cultural tourism zone) ends neatly at the border.

So when we passed the sign proclaiming we had entered "Little Denmark," we started looking for expressions of Danish culture. Certainly, a hundred years ago the area was heavily influenced by Scandinavian culture. Swedish and Danish surnames marked most local businesses. When I asked locals about their heritage, most were clear that they descended from Danish pioneers. But when I looked for contemporary expressions of Danish heritage, I couldn't find any. PLEASE CLICK HERE if you'd like to participate in a survey about your family's Scandinavian food traditions.

I specifically asked several people if they had eaten Danish food recently. Some with Danish family heritage couldn't recall any Danish food items at all. Others noted that they had eaten an apple dumpling at the Scandinavian festival held each Memorial Day weekend. It appeared that the Scandinavian festival had become the repository for Danish heritage. It holds the heritage so securely that there is none to be found during the remainder of the year.

Ephraim and Manti both have their Co-operative Merchantile building still standing. Both now house touristy little crafty shops. When I asked about Danish food, many people directed me to the Co-op as a possible source for a Mormon Danish cookbook. The Manti Co-op had nothing, but the Ephraim Co-op had several cookbooks. Some had Danish recipes, and there was one that was the production of the local women's Relief Society. This local cookbook was filled with recipes for lasagna, chile verde and hamburger/macaroni stew. This cookbook also had several recipes bearing Danish-language names, but no provenance.

All in all, I came away thinking that the "Little Denmark" moniker was all tourism and no actual Danish culture. There is a body of culture there that I believe holds Scandinavian heritage intact, but it is not evidenced in daily life.

Do you have any multi-generational ethnic heritage that you express at least once a month?

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Patty Sessions was headed out of Nauvoo in 1846. So was her husband's second wife, Lovina. What we know about the circumstances comes from Patty's diary, so perhaps the facts are a little slanted. The Sessions's were not long on the trail before tensions between the two sister wives made life difficult, with all three sharing a tent. According to Patty, Lovina refused to help with camp chores such as cooking and laundry. She told Br. Sessions lies about Patty. Br. Sessions apparently came to feel that Patty was at fault. To demonstrate his condemnation of her, Br. Sessions took away Patty's stores of saleratus and locked it up. Patty was about 45 years old at the time.

Saleratus is a chemical compound (potassium carbonate) which naturally weeps from the ground as mineral-bearing water evaporates. Coming from Latin roots, sal aeratus means aerated salt, referring to its ability to produce carbon dioxide when mixed with another acidic food element such as vinegar or tartaric acid (cream of tartar). It is used instead of soda to make biscuits. Pioneers on the trail often gathered saleratus when they found it, for example near Independence Rock in Wyoming. It is also reported to occur on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. I believe I have seen some such deposits in the past.

In Utah, pioneer settlers continued to use saleratus to leaven their biscuits. Livvy Olsen, a Danish immigrant growing up near Manti, Utah in the 1860s, remembered collecting saleratus by the wagon load near the San Pitch river.

So today I went out to see if I could find some saleratus. South of Manti a mile or so is "Manti Meadows", a property managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Most people go there to hunt ducks and pheasants. From the road, I could see bright white patches in the clay soil. We (my good wife sometimes shares my food adventures) walked a half-mile or so from the parking area, and spotted a patch of what we thought was saleratus. It crusted over the ground, with a slightly crystalline appearance, almost like salt. It seemed to be frozen in a bubbly foam. The crust was a quarter- to half-inch thick over the ground. I whipped out a small container of vinegar I had brought. A little saleratus in my palm foamed and fizzed when I poured vinegar on it. We had struck it rich!

Last night it rained considerably, so the deposits were softer than normal, and we had to be careful in collecting them so they wouldn't crumble. I imagine that if we had a dry spell, the saleratus would be more crusted and stable. Also with the rain, some sandy silt came up with the saleratus.

From what I have read, some pioneers dissolved the saleratus in a little water, and let the silt settle to the bottom. The mineral-bearing water could then be used to mix biscuits. I haven't tried it yet, but I'll let you know how it turns out. More than anything it makes me think we don't really know much about pioneer cooking, if we've never used saleratus before.