Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Some Mighty Fine Eatin' on the Oregon Trail

My grocery list is a mile long and has everything from vanilla flavoring to ice cream, milk, Blue Plate (yes, that is the proper term), dips and chips, chicken, hamburger, bread,and Fruity Pebbles (for My Cowboy), not to mention that I keep my list in the Notes section of my iphone.

Btw, this was lunch. Fresh, homegrown tomatoes from my mother-in-law's garden, fresh bread, and Blue Plate mayonnaise. That's good eatin', folks!

But, alas, I’ve been writing a couple of novellas for Barbour Publishing set along the Oregon Trail during the homesteading era. And, sadly, they didn't have fresh white bread, tomatoes (at least not after the first week or so), and the only blue plates they might have would have been grandma's precious china packed securely between layers of hay or moss in the bowels of a family trunk.

Also, my characters couldn’t just stop by Walmart or the Piggly Wiggly to stock up on supplies, and they didn’t have room to truck many fancy fixings in the bed of a 4x10 foot bed of a wagon. Can you imagine packing all your earthly belongings in 40 square feet of space for months at a time?

So, I got to thinking and figuring how a family of 4 could not only survive, but eat well, on the trail for months at a time. What would they need just for the basics? One source suggested the following basic necessities for 3-4 months on the trail for each grown person.

150 lbs flour or hard bread
25 lbs bacon or pork
15 lbs coffee
25 lbs sugar
Yeast powders, soda, salt, and pepper

Those quantities would need to be adjusted down for women and children, but that’s still a lot of food to haul around in a wagon, and it doesn’t allow for much variety either, does it?

Soda biscuits and salt pork for breakfast, dinner, and supper. That would be about it, wouldn’t it? A savvy traveler would sell or give away all the heavy geegaws, iron bedsteads, and whatnots to the neighbors and pack food in their wagon. Also, if I was traveling that far and that long, I’d try to include some, if not all of the following, to my staples and then I could add a little more variety to the meals.

Beans, canned vegetables and tomatoes, canned milk, cornmeal, molasses, apple cider vinegar. Potatoes, carrots, and apples would last several weeks and would add variety to their fare. Travelers could have brought along some onions (separate and tie into an old stocking and they'll keep a while) and later they might be lucky enough to find wild onions along the trail. Thinking about the bland food on the trail for all those months might even induce me to toss Grandma's china and pack in a good supply of herbs and spices.

And of course, the travelers might have access to wild game, rabbits, deer, squirrels, turkey, wild berries, nuts, wild cabbage and greens, but with 250,000 travelers on the Oregon Trail, anything of this sort would have been scarce and a rare treat to find. So, let's get started. The first order of business is to fry up a bit of salt pork, and never throw away the fat. We’ll need that for bread and frying later.

With these ingredients, a traveler on the Oregon Trail could whip up some Soda Biscuits: flour, a little canned or fresh milk if you’re so blessed, and some soda and salt. Add a bit of that bacon grease if you have it on hand. Mix up a stiff dough, choke off enough to roll out some biscuits and place ‘em in a covered dutch oven. Shove it under the fire, and shovel live coals over it. Open a can of beans, and you’ve got biscuits, salt pork and beans for supper. Even the beans could be spiced up by adding some molasses, onions, and fried pork.

For a nice treat instead of just water and coffee, the pioneers might have a bit of Vinegar Lemonade. Mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar into a 12 ounce glass of water. Add 2 tablespoons of sugar to taste.

How about some Fried Apples or Apple Pie? Add a bit of bacon grease to the dutch oven, peel and slice 6-8 Granny Smith apples, simmer just a bit to soften, then mix up some biscuit dough and put on top, and bake the same way as plain biscuits. A little extra sugar and cinnamon would be great, but not an absolute necessity.

For Stew and Soup, well, I can just picture a couple of those pioneer women getting together one evening and making stone soup. A bit of ham hock, a couple cans of beans, the last of the corn, somebody might drag out a prized jar of tomatoes, throw in a rabbit or prairie chicken, potatoes that are sprouting or going a bit soft. Add in a big pone of cornbread, and they'd have a feast for sure.

Dutch Oven Trout (Do you see a pattern here? A dutch oven was a pioneer cook’s prized possession!) Catch and clean the fish, pat dry with a cloth wet with vinegar water, then roll the trout in a mixture of cornmeal, flour, a bit of dry powered milk, salt and pepper. Fry in bacon grease until crisp and brown. Or just gut and clean the fish, wrap tight with string and bake on spits above the fire. Same with rabbits and haunches of venison. Cook ‘em over the fire instead of in a stew.

Cornmeal Fritters and Corn Dodgers are basically the same thing and are quick and easy. Cornmeal, powdered milk, water, grease, or an egg if it's available, salt, a bit of sugar. Mix it up and fry in a skillet. Or for a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast, mix cornmeal, water, lard, and salt, and make Cornmeal Mush. Add some dried fruit such as currants (raisens) and serve with molasses and butter if you have that. Actually sounds quite tasty, doesn’t it?

Cook at French Camp, MS

Slapjacks or Flapjacks (not the British version) are a mixture of flour, sugar, yeast, and water/milk. It’s a pancake. Simple enough.

I’m mighty hungry now just thinking about all the food I could cook on the trail. How about you? What staples would you want to bring along on the trail? Something versatile that you could make a variety of dishes out of? And, if you could've taken mayonnaise on the the trip, what brand would it have been?

Pam Hillman was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mississippi and spent her teenage years perched on the seat of a tractor raking hay. In those days, her daddy couldn’t afford two cab tractors with air conditioning and a radio, so Pam drove the Allis Chalmers 110. Even when her daddy asked her if she wanted to bale hay, she told him she didn’t mind raking. Raking hay doesn’t take much thought so Pam spent her time working on her tan and making up stories in her head. Claiming Mariah is her second novel. Look for The Evergreen Bride, October, 2014.


  1. Ha! We'll, it's about noon time give or take an hour. So, go ahead and indulge. I've had tomato sandwiches for lunch two days in a row. I wonder if I'll break the trend today? Hmmm...

  2. Hi Pam - what a fun post! I hadn't thought in those terms before but you're right - if they had to carry such large quantities of food staples with them it would leave a lot of room for a whole lot of niceties or heirlooms.

    1. Winnie, from my reading of true accounts of the era, I think that's part of the reason so much had to be abandoned along the trail. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to leave everything behind, but without food, water, and fodder for the animals, the rest would be a moot point, yes?

  3. I never knew they'd pack dishes in hay or moss before. That's such a great fact to ponder.
    I love history so this was a fascinating post that really made me appreciate only having to drive five miles to get to a grocery store. It reminded me of the computer game based on the Oregon Trail experiences, but I love posts like yours that help me think about what real people went through during such a strenuous journey.
    But it does make me appreciate sliced bread all the more.

    1. Tanya, isn't it amazing? When I was a kid, we went on vacations every summer, and we packed and ate a lot of food in the car. Mama fried chicken in a park somewhere in the northern quadrant once. I'm from Mississippi! I can't imagine how she did that and even more importantly, why none of us died from botulism! But we were a healthy lot, and 40 years ago, there weren't that many places to eat on the road...and for country folks like us, paying those prices was considered "highway robbery". Things sure have changed! :)

  4. Pam you do make food of the earlier generations sound good, I am always amazed they can cook and eat outdoors ,many even fixing a fire too. I would not know what to do with a live animal be it rabbit-chicken or fish..I do love to read these type of stories though and see how well they get along on a trip on a wagon train or just living on the prairie.
    thanks for sharing.

    Paula O

    1. Paula, the live animal to the part... would be the most difficult for me, Paula!!! :( But if we just skip that part, I think I could manage. Of course, it was second nature to most of that generation.

  5. I can't imagine eating the same thing for so long. I like variety in my food. Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. When we get down to it, I think the difference, especially with the "salt of the earth" people, was that they "ate to live", while we "live to eat". Of course, the very rich of any generation had 20-30 course meals that lasted for hours, but common people probably just ate what they had and enjoyed their favorite dishes on special occasions. We live in a blessed time and place, don't we?

  6. I enjoy books on the Oregon Trail and loved your post on the 'grocery list' for the trail ride. I'd take as many canned fruits and vegetables as I could fit in, canned meats like salmon and ham and chicken, some dried fruit and nuts for snacking and lots of tablets to purify the water along the way. Coffee would be a must also. Thanks for your post, Pam. sharon wileygreen1ATyahooDOTcom

    1. Sharon, thanks for stopping by. Great suggestions. A couple of other items that I found in one resource was pickled eggs. Ewww, BUT if I couldn't have fresh eggs, pickled ones would do. Also, in Stealing Jake, Mr. McIver had a whole barrel of pickled herring accidentally shipped to his store. Shucks, I'd eat pickled herring if I had to. :)