Thursday, October 1, 2009

Saleratus

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.

8 comments:

Tawna said...

I wish you had taken some photos of your adventure. It would be great to see what it looks like.

Jen said...

Hey, next time you have a break, you should come visit Thermop. I hear this town has great saleratus. :)

Brock said...

Ya know, I bet you're right. All of that thermal-mineral-hydrological action probably leaves tons of saleratus all over the place. You should try baking with it! Just don't let Curtis lock it away.

Maude said...

What an interesting blog! I teach the DUP (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers) lesson each month and this month (Nov. 2010) I have been reading We'll Find the Place by Richard E. Bennett for my lesson. Fascinating! On page 187 he writes about the first pioneer company finding saleratus as they approached the Sweetwater and Independence Rock on their journey to the Salt Lake Valley. This saleratus appeared stronger than most and if they used to much turned the bread "quite green." Just a little correction to what you wrote. Saleratus is sodium (or potassium) BIcarbonate. (as in baking soda.) Thanks for the interesting blog. I'll have to read more, being both a history buff and a foodie. Maude

Brock said...

Hi Maude! I'm glad you found us. Add yourself as a follower to the blog and I'll send you a little saleratus. Hope to see more of your comments!

C. Cahill said...

A friend just posted a quote by O. Henry on his FB page that mentions saleratus biscuits. I googled it and came across your blog. I just had to tell you- I think this blog is fantastic! When I was a kid, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder and wanted so badly to cook the way they did. Someone finally came out with a cookbook (which I own) and I was able to try a few recipes.
I think this blog is great & I can't wait to read more! :)

o2bndrh2o said...

I found this blog after doing a google search for Saleratus, a word mentioned in a 1985 Memoir of my Great Aunt, on her family's homesteading from Wisconsin to Montana in 1909. Here is a quote;

"People of that generation made pancakes that were made something like this. They mixed up a batter with flour, water or milk, eggs, salt, perhaps something else and then let it sour and each morning they added a little soda. This was a continuing process that never ended since part of the batter was always left to start the next day. These pancakes were quite good, except that the amount of soda was guessed at and sometimes it was a little too noticeable. My father always called soda – saleratus - and asked for it as saleratus at the grocery store. My husband grew up eating these pancakes also and he grew up in Oklahoma. I think they were called sour dough pancakes but I am not sure."
Thanks for the definition and info.

Tim

Brock said...

Hey Tim, thanks for dropping by. I recently found a reference saying the original townsite of Goshen (southern Utah Valley) was un-farmable because of alkalai in the soil caused by saleratus. So there's another place you could find saleratus, if you wanted such a food adventure. Hope you'll stop by again.