Farmers on the Great Plains depended on fickle nature for their diet, and many a cook relied on cornmeal.
In 1857 Nebraska Territory school- teacher Mollie Dorsey Sanford re- corded that her breakfast was corn- bread and salt pork; lunch was cold cornbread, wild greens and boiled pork; and supper was hoecakes (cornbread), cold greens and pork. Mealtimes were like that for many settlers on the Great Plains. In her beloved Little House series of semiautobiographical novels Laura Ingalls Wilder describes how her pioneer family enjoyed homegrown vegetables and what meat they could raise or hunt, but just about every meal included cornbread. Children typically started the day with corn fritters for breakfast. A bucket lunch at school consisted of perhaps a boiled egg and a corn fritter. Dinner at the home table might be boiled pork, dried apples soaked in water and baked, and, of course, cornbread.
Sometimes there was no game, the potatoes froze and bugs ate the squash, but corn rarely failed. Each stalk held the promise of one or two good-sized ears. A farmer could grow corn in a big field or crowded corner and often planted all the way up to the front door. Corn could be boiled, fried or roasted. But fresh corn on the cob lost its flavor quickly and soon spoiled, so settlers preserved most of it by drying it on racks in the sun or in a corn crib, a shed with slatted sides spaced to allow plenty of air circulation. Dried corn could then be boiled and added to stews and soups or ground into cornmeal, the most dependable and versatile food on the Plains.
Hoecakes, or johnnycakes—the cornmeal version of pancakes—could be baked or fried, leavened or not, and might contain combinations of nuts and dried fruit. Cornmeal was used to make everything from mush to squash bread and piecrusts. Knowing cooks added kernel corn to a cornmeal mix for corny cornbread. Coffee was a luxury, so some folks developed a taste for a hot drink made from charred corn.
Waking on May 13, 1855, her first morning in Kansas Territory, homesteader Miriam Davis Colt wrote in her journal, “Can anyone imagine our disappointment this morning on learning…that no mills have been built.” Many a prosperous settlement grew up around the first settler to build either a gristmill or sawmill on a creek bank. At a gristmill water running across a paddlewheel rotated an axle, which turned the machinery to crank a heavy millstone set atop a fixed bed stone. The miller poured dried corn kernels between these stones to make meal and took a share of it in lieu of payment. While awaiting the arrival of such an entrepreneur, the Colts and their neighbors ground their corn by hand, as American Indians had done for millennia.
“I live entirely on food made of corn,” Miriam lamented.
Early settlers craved white bread, especially sourdough, which spread across the Great Plains and be- came very popular during the California Gold Rush at mid-century. Yeast was necessary to make most bread rise, but it spoiled quickly, so it was hard for settlers to keep on hand. They could make sourdough in the absence of packaged yeast. But preparation of white breads did require wheat flour, an expensive store-bought item in a region with few merchants.
Folks couldn’t just run into town anytime they needed groceries. It was often too far, and prices were steep. After one trip to the store Miriam Colt, shocked that potatoes cost $4 a bushel, cooked just one for her mother and planted the rest. Dry-land gardens like hers were essential on the arid plains. In the absence of irrigation they comprised such hardy crops as corn, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips and rutabagas. In wet years they might include tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, watermelons and beans—lots of beans. Many settlers followed the Indian practice of planting beans among their corn, with the bean vines climbing the cornstalks. Beans were easy to dry and kept for years. They were second only to corn as a staple on the Plains.
To supplement their gardens, settlers learned to gather whatever nature provided. They picked chokecherries, wild onions and garlic, sunflower roots and cattails and cooked every sort of wild green, including poke, chicory and dandelion—seasoned with salt and sugar, plus vinegar if available. Certain cacti, when boiled and then fried, tasted something like green beans. Vitamin-packed watercress grew in creeks, and mushrooms in the woods. Teas were popular, because they kept a long time. If a family hadn’t brought in packaged teas, they’d make their own from wild ginseng, mint, sassafras, plantain, dandelion and sage. Huge chestnut trees grew all across America, with spiny hulled fruits prickly to harvest but a delight to roast and eat. Some acorns were bitter, while others were sweet and tasty when ground into a meal and substituted for cornmeal in breads and cakes. Even tiny pine nuts were packed with nutrition.
Creative cooks conceived a variety of toppings for their cornbread. They made apple butter, pear butter and pumpkin butter. Other times they simply boiled a little fruit with sugar to make a rich, tasty syrup. One favorite sweet in the desert Southwest was prickly pear jelly, made from the colorful fruits of the abundant cactus variety in fall, as long as the cook had a supply of sugar.
Of course, sugar was a store-bought item, as was molasses, another popular sweetener. Maple syrup was sweet, but maple trees didn’t grow in the heart of the Great Plains. Thus many pioneer families relied on fresh honey as their primary sweetener.
Two years after the Civil War, Union Army veteran Henry Bailey and wife Hannah moved from Indiana to homestead in Missouri near the Kansas border. Like every other family they kept a cow for milk, butter and cheese. On churning day Hannah would scoop fresh butter into a press and, when it cooled, push out perfect yellow blocks, each stamped with a swimming swan. For the price of a sack of cornmeal, Henry and Hannah would have the cow bred about once a year, providing them with a calf to trade or butcher.
If a family went through a time without a cow on their hardscrabble farm, they might make do with a smear of bacon grease instead of butter on biscuits. Frontier cooks fried just about anything in grease, and they used grease, milk and cornmeal to make popular cornmeal gravy. Pork fat was preferred for cooking, though beef, buffalo or bear fat made acceptable substitutes.
Each national and ethnic group contributed its own recipes to the American melting pot, with ubiquitous cornmeal often substituting for traditional ingredients. For example, when potatoes were in short supply, the Irish topped their shepherd’s pie with cornmeal mush. Germans introduced blutwurst (blood sausage), while Scots, Jews and Eastern Europeans made haggis and kishka, their respective versions of stuffed intestines. For spices, cooks used wild garlic and sage, peppergrass and wild rose, among other native options. The sausage recipes called for oats, rice or barley for fillers. But when those weren’t available, cornmeal again came to the rescue.
We’ve all heard the hunting tales. Didn’t pioneers keep their families fed with wild game? Yes, but again they were limited to what nature provided.
Along the Mississippi Delta and in the Rocky Mountains deer, bears and elks abounded. The northern Plains offered antelopes and bison, albeit in diminishing numbers. But in the continent’s midsection, from the Platte River to the Rio Grande, were vast territories where little grew besides buffalo grass, and the biggest game animals were rabbits and pheasants. Missourians were accustomed to bagging deer weighing 140 pounds or more but had to settle for 90-pound deer when they crossed into Kansas. Farm families dreamed of roasts but would settle for the meat of possums, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes, mussels, crawfish and turtles. Turtles were especially popular, as they inhabited most bodies of water and were readily caught by hand, line or trap.
Possum meat was dark and greasy, and because possums ate anything they could find, including carrion, the meat often gave off a foul odor while cooking. The clean meat of herbivorous muskrats and field rats, by contrast, was always welcome in a homemade stew or dipped in cornmeal and fried, though if a cook wasn’t careful to remove the muskrat’s scent glands, someone was in for a pungent supper.
Otherwise, Western cooks used virtually every part of the animal, from organs to skin. The recipe for calf’s head, which appeared in South Carolina Cooking in 1845 and remained popular enough to appear in Progressive Farmer magazine in 1894, called for a hatchet—the only means of accessing the delicious brains inside. Tongue, liver, heart, kidney, necks, tails and gizzards were all welcome at the table. If no other meat was available, a cook might add an animal’s skin to soup. It was common practice to keep the same pot of soup on the fire for days, adding any bits of meat, produce or other edibles that came along.
Sweltering summers on the Great Plains often made indoor cooking unbearable, so settlers did much of their cooking in the open air, “roofed by the blue dome of heaven,” as Miriam Colt put it. There amid the wind, dust, rain and insects they developed recipes that required little if any cookware. Flat stones served as skillets. With a Montgomery Ward catalog a farm wife could make “nest eggs”; soaking a few pages in water, she’d break an egg into each one, twist it up into a ball and set it in the campfire coals to cook. Any metal bucket would do to make “bucket beans”; the cook would dig a hole in the morning, lower in a bucket of beans, onions and water, add the lid, then shovel in embers from the fire. When the day’s work was done, so were the beans.
Gathering firewood took a lot of time and effort, and some families had to haul it for miles. On the treeless plains of Kansas and Nebraska bison or cow chips served to fuel the fire. Women typically tended the fires, indoors and out, all day, all year. There were fires in the stove and fires in the fireplace. There were fires for the wash pot and hotter fires for scalding the hair and feathers from slaughtered animals. Many women bore scars on their hands and singed patches on their clothing. Others suffered terrible burns or died when their dresses caught fire.
With that in mind many a family saved their pennies toward the cost of a new cast-iron stove. A stove was not only safer to use but also easier on one’s back, as tending its firebox certainly beat bending, kneeling and reaching into a fireplace with kindling and heavy iron pots. It also demanded a lot less firewood, heated the house better in winter and, maybe best of all, didn’t introduce ashes in the food, a common complaint with fireplace cooking.
Stoves were common in Eastern cities by the 1850s. But when a woman on the frontier got a new stove, she had to learn to cook all over again—how to control the heat, how to keep the fire drafting properly, how to clean the stove. Of course there was no thermostat in the oven, so a cook was left to measure heat by counting how long she could keep a bare hand on the stove. A count of 20 meant the temperature was just right for fruit pie or cornbread.
Over the course of a year pioneer families had access to a variety of local foods. The trick was to preserve each one long enough to eat it. If the farm bore a spring, the family built a springhouse—often little more than a wooden box straddling the stream. With a couple of inches of cool water inside, it would keep dairy products and leftovers cool. By the mid- 1800s women who could afford jars and lids were canning. If they had enough salt, they would salt or pickle meat; if not, they would smoke or dry it. In midwinter farm wives would venture out to the shed with an ax or saw and carve whatever was needed from the hanging meats. Dried herbs, peppers and garlic hung from the kitchen rafters. Families also dried fruit, later brought back to life by boiling. A cool, damp cellar was the best place to store roots, onions, fresh fruits and berries. If the house didn’t have a cellar, the family would dig a hole in the ground, drop in a wooden or tin box, line it with straw and add a lid capped by a few inches of sod. Primitive as it was, such a cooler would keep a steady temperature year-round. What a treat it must have been for children to come home from school on a spring day, open the box and pull out a crisp apple.
The era of pioneer cooking was nothing short of amazing in its level of adaptability and opportunism. It took persistent, resourceful people who ate whatever was available and weren’t overly particular about how things tasted. Spices were sparse, and cooking was always an adventure in ingredient substitution. Farmers never knew which crops would come in and which would succumb to heat, cold or foraging wildlife. Settlers had to be ready to dry, smoke, salt, can or pickle food for the future. That’s how, one meal at a time, clever pioneers fed their families—with cornmeal and creativity.
Joe Johnston, a native Okie, writes from Nashville, Tenn., where he raises vegetables and makes corny cornbread in his great-grandmother’s cast-iron skillet. Suggested for further reading: The Mormon Pioneer Cookbook, by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods From Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories, by Barbara M. Walker.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.