Corn+Bread=Sturdy, satisfying survival food
Contemporary cookbooks offer all sorts of entertaining and delicious sounding recipes for early American cooking, cowboy cooking, and pioneer cooking. But cooking in the late-1800s American West was really all about survival, not taste and variety. According to Richard Erodos in Saloons of the Old West, “Western saloon food was confined to the Basic Four B’s – sourdough biscuits, beans, beef and bacon… Westerners ate to fill the belly, not for pleasure.” This series focuses on these sturdy survival foods, eaten day in and day out, beginning with a daily staple. Corn.
In my novel Cat’s Café, Catherine Callaway wants to prepare and serve her mother’s recipes from aristocratic Louisville in her husband’s Eagle Rock saloon. When Patrick disappears, Catherine has her hands full just running the saloon, so she turns over the cooking to local Native American woman Crow Feather.
Catherine may have intended to serve a light wheat flour biscuit, or even a sour dough flat bread, to the growing dining room crowd, but corn was much more readily available than wheat and more familiar to Crow Feather whose elk stew and cast iron cornbread were instant crowd pleasers.
According to Log Cabin Cooking by Barbara Swell, “Morning, noon, and night, the pioneers ate [corn]… boiled, baked, fried, and dried. Corn was the most important crop to the settlers. One acre of corn could produce up to 20 times the yield of an acre of wheat or rye, and it could be planted between tree stumps on uncleared land.”
Biscuits could be made over an open fire by traveling settlers and range riding cowboys in either a skillet or a cast iron Dutch oven called a bake kettle. Recipes, called receipts by cooks who had not been taught how to read, used “food rhymes you heard your mama sing as she cooked,” quotes Ethel Reed in Pioneer Kitchen, A Frontier Cookbook, to help them remember recipes.
Pioneer cooks had to be creative and industrious with the few available ingredients. For example, combining baking soda with sour milk could be substituted for baking powder, sheep sorrel for lemon, toasted and ground chicory roots for coffee beans, and so on. Acorn flour anyone?! For more on this, visit Weird History’s “What Early Pioneers Ate to Survive the Old West.”
Here is Crow Feather’s recipe for cornbread. For our tastes, this heavy, crunchy bread is significantly improved when served with a generous amount of chilled butter! It would be a worthy addition to a back yard family “Pioneer Night” campout. Serve with, yes, beans and bacon, which I’ll cover next week.