Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yeast, redux

The other evening I did a lecture and training workshop for the folks up at This Is The Place Heritage Park. We rambled over a few subjects, but of key interest was the subject of yeast. I know I've been through this before here, but there was so much discussion and argument I thought I'd better straighten a couple of things out.

First, the pioneer understanding of yeast was quite limited, from a microbiology perspective. They didn't quite understand what it was, as evidenced by this quote from the Deseret News, November 30, 1854:

To Make Yeast: Hop yeast may be most conveniently made in the following manner: Boil a double handful of hops in a gallon of pure soft water for fifteen or twenty minutes; strain off the liquor while scalding hot; stir in wheat meal or flour till a thick batter is formed; let it stand till it becomes blood warm; add a pint of good lively fresh yeast, and stir it well; then let it stand at a place where it will keep at a temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, till it becomes perfectly light. This yeast will keep from one to two weeks, if corked tight in a clean earthen jug, and kept in a cool cellar.

In other words, they didn't seem to understand the idea of growing yeast, or that it was a living thing. In fact, they believed that yeast was a dead thing, the product of decay.

In the above quote, hops are used. In our discussion it was not entirely clear about what the hops were for. Hops are a small flower that grows on a vine like grapes. Hops have astringent qualities which deter certain kinds of detrimental bacterial growth. Hops and yeast get along quite nicely however, so the hops help to keep a yeast culture pure while it is being stored between uses. Otherwise, the yeast could be invaded by other airborne bacteria and become spoiled.

The question was raised, "where does one get yeast to begin with?" The above quote assumes that you have yeast to multiply. If you don't have yeast to begin with, you can lure yeast out of the air by leaving a sugary liquid open on the table. If you look at apples on the tree or grapes on the vine, they are covered with a dusty coating of yeast, attracted to their sweetness. You could wash the apples in water, and then feed sugar to the yeasty water, and grow a culture in this manner. Airborne yeast is naturally attracted to sweet, wherever it is found.

I believe that Mormon pioneers brought yeast cultures with them. There is some argument to the contrary, but since yeast is such a fundamental part of Anglo food culture, and since we know they had the understanding of yeast in Nauvoo, it would seem ludicrous that this knowledge didn't transfer to the Rockies.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Brief Announcement

I'm up early this morning getting ready for a full day of pioneer food. We're cooking Dutch oven stuff all day, of course, with a big dinner and old-time dance this evening. What are you doing for your 24th?

But an announcement for you:
On Tuesday, July 27th I will be doing a two-hour lecture and training workshop at This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, starting at 5:30p.m. It will be held at Smoot Hall, the first big red brick building as you enter the village. If you're interested in volunteering at the park, or if you want to learn more about Mormon pioneer foodways in a hands-on historical setting, I hope you'll come.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Friends Are For

I have a good friend named Cody. I've known Cody for a very long time, almost twenty years. We met each other doing historical re-enactments, and since that time we've become neighbors. Cody has even employed me from time to time. Cody is, among many other things, a stone mason. Cody is also a historic preservation general contractor. In the town where we live he has restored three historic homes from the 1870s. You can see one of his recent projects here.

Cody is also an amazing wood worker. Last winter for Solstice he gave me the coolest little candle holder that he turned on a foot-treadle lathe. And today, get ready to be jealous... today he gave me...

wait for it...

Don't you think it has a very long handle? That's to keep me far away from the fire...

Of course, when there's actually bread on the peel, the fire will be swept out of the oven, but the oven will still be hot, so ergo the long handle. Actually, I don't have a bread oven. But I often dream about a wood fired bread oven. I'll probably sleep with the bread peel tonight.

That's why Cody is such a good friend: he fuels my dreams. He was in Nauvoo recently, and he went to the bakery there. He talked my book up to the sweet little ladies in the bakery, who, it turns out, wanted to know all about historic yeast applications. I'm not sure if they're allowed to get online, but we'll send them some information anyway.

Hope your plans for the 24th are coming along! Do tell...

Monday, July 19, 2010

An Agricultural Engine

Hello again, friends! Before we get started, let me just give a brief news update. Sometime this week (probably Tuesday) the blog here is going to be featured in the Mormon Times section of the DesNews. Not sure if its just the online or the actual print version. Also, at the end of the month I'm going to be making a presentation at the Utah Pioneer Heritage Arts quarterly breakfast. And sometime between now and then I'm going to be doing some foodways lectures for volunteers up at This Is The Place Heritage Park (a.k.a TITP), helping them to use pioneer foodways to hook visitors.

As I was doing some of the research for TITP recently it struck me that the core of the pioneer Utah economy was agriculturally based. Agriculture was their only significant production industry, and their only large scale export. In 1864 for example, historian Leonard Arrington documented 200,000 pounds of dried peaches being shipped from Utah to the mining communities in Montana. Similar shipments of wheat sustained the early settlement of Denver, Colorado in 1859.

So this brought me to look at all the elements of agriculture a little differently. Sometimes in the past I looked at the timber-framed barns of early Utah and thought, "If they could build such a large barn, why would they live in such small houses?" This past week I came to understand that the barn was an economic engine for the family farm. The barn sheltered the horses and oxen that plowed the fields. The barn supplied the clean sheltered space for threshing grain. Additional outbuildings stored corn, or helped to process milk, or preserve hams. Most of the output from these structures was headed to market. Often we think of self-sufficient homesteads, but the agricultural efforts were for cash crops, not simply home production.

So I was thinking about building a chicken coop for our family, and I got online to look at plans. Most of what you find online is very hobby-oriented, aimed at just a handful of hobby chickens. I have something bigger in mind, more than the occasional feel-good omlette. I'd like an economic engine. Something to house 50+ hens...

On a different topic, what are y'all doing for the 24th?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Before we get started, I just thought we should all give Jana the nod for her triumphal creation of Brown Bread Ice Cream in our throw-down from last time. It was a tough competition, but she prevailed in style. Yay for Jana! You can view her blog here.

So I was thinking I might not have shared my definition of "foodways" before. Actually the definition comes from my old foodie folklorist professor, Jay Anderson, a pioneer in the study of historic foodways. He says foodways is "from seed to s**t and everything in between" In other words, foodways study includes the planting of the garden, the butchering of chickens, the preparation of the meal, the eating of it, and the spreading of manure on the garden.

In that vein... yesterday was my irrigation turn. Taking turns on the irrigation ditch is an old venerated Mormon pioneer pastime. Countless feuds over the proper sharing of water hold a strong place in our Mormon traditions. Our ditch master is fond of saying, "There's two things you don't mess with in the West: a man's whiskey, and his water." I remember a talk in General Conference a couple of years ago about two Mormon farmers feuding on the ditch over the water. Eventually one killed the other. The talk was about forgiveness, I think.

This is a good water year. The reservoir is full, spilling over. There should be plenty of water for everyone. So you can imagine my surprise last week when the water seemed only half of what it should have been. We said, "Oh well," and didn't worry much. Then yesterday, again, there wasn't as much as there should have been. So I went up the ditch, gate by gate, to see where it might be going. Sure enough, someone up the ditch had their gate open and about half of my turn was going to him. Well, I corrected that. Now I'm not sure but what they might have had an arrangement to share some of the water from the person before me, but now I know I have to check the whole ditch every time.

Without water in the ditch, there will be no tomatoes in August. Till next time...