It was easy for me to think that recipes from the Old West or Civil War Era, were found in every relative’s cookbook from the turn of the century. But the truth is, cookbooks, like the ones we use today, weren’t really on the shelves until about 1920s. No one really had money for the luxuries of buying recipe books. Few had even thought of creating one.
Since I’m an Old West historian, I found that the tastes of the country and city folks coming out west brought with them their skills of cooking. Simple foods required simple instructions. Recipes were handed down on loose pieces of paper, in a handwritten letter, or even stuffed in the pages of a family bible.
More Folklore Than Formulas
And what became our list of specific ingredients followed by detailed instructions began as loosely expressed directions – more folklore than formulas. Many cooks substituted the ingredients with what was on hand. While salt, sugar, and flour were staples, and herbs were gathered out the back door, not many had saffron, ginger, and exotic flavorings like we have today.
A pinch of salt, a dram of tartar, a ladle of pork fat. Well, those measurements made recipes so different that not one cook could copy the flavors. After years of secret recipes for cobblers and pies, jams and jellies, breads and compotes took blue ribbons at the county fairs across the country, tying down the ingredients into a cookbook was pure industrialization.
I happen to own an original The Hearthstone, Or, Life at Home: A Household Manual Containing Hints, by Laura Carter Holloway written in 1886. It has a small section of recipes almost added into the book as an afterthought. It calls for wives to be good hostesses, caregivers of the ill, managing the household’s daily chores, how to care for a baby, and how to make bread. It’s much more than that. Easily I can spend hours perusing its pages for recipe nuggets.
Here’s an easy sample of an old-time recipe:
MISSISSIPPI CAKE: One pint of the best yellow cornmeal, a pint of buttermilk, two tablespoons of melted butter, two eggs, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of Saleratus. (saleratus: Sodium or potassium bicarbonate used as a leavening agent; an early term for baking soda)
That’s it. No cooking directions, so it’s presumed that a wood stove is used and 350-375 degrees is an average temperature if using an oven. This recipe could also be created in a Dutch oven over an open fire. No cooking time is given so it may be cooked until brown, or even until the surface springs back when touched. Dutch oven cooking would usually include a lid with a lip that held 8-12 pieces of hot charcoal.
So there you have just a taste — pardon my pun — of some of the earliest attempts at sharing a family heirloom from the kitchen. i’ll be returning each week with more historical recipes and insights into the frontier kitchen and Old West hospitality.