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Hospitality in the Old West Found in Woman’s Home Manual

Home HInts for New Wives

The Hearthstone book helped newlywed wives carry out daily chores of 1886

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.

Home Hospitality starts in 1886 Hearthstone Book

Early Women’s book for Household Hints

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.

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5 Comments

  1. February 10, 2016    

    I have a really old cookbook. The recipe ingredients are very easy to understand, but the directions say “cool oven” or “moderate oven” or some other descriptor that doesn’t translate to a gas or electric stove. I have determined that 350 works for most things. At least my recipe had cooking times listed.

  2. February 10, 2016    

    The recipe is like that because people cooked. It wasn’t a time like now when half of the people don’t cook at home. It’s like when my grandmother was telling me how to cook something. She didn’t know the proportions. She knew what it should look like and feel like. I must say that the Mississippi cake sounds a lot like corn bread. Is that all of the ingredients.

  3. February 10, 2016    

    Moderate oven would be 350 then?

  4. February 10, 2016    

    The Mississippi cake does sound like cornbread. Marissa, I remember my grandmother telling me over the phone how to make chocolate meringue pie – a little bit of this and that. She knew the measurements, but I had to guess. My chocolate pie didn’t turn out exactly like hers back then but has since been perfected.

  5. February 10, 2016    

    Angie, 350 is a moderate oven. At least, I think it is. Everything that I’ve baked from that cookbook that said “moderate oven” came out perfectly in a 350 degree oven.

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