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.
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