Hearty fare for a hardy people

The Examiner

Probably not very tasty by today’s standards, but boiled beans, corn and meat were the basic foods of the early pioneer family.

Ted Stillwell

The folks ate corn in some form at almost every meal. The pioneers raised corn as their chief crop because it could be used in so many ways and kept well in any season, from the hot Midwest summers through the cold winter nights.

Corn was a staple for many pioneer families.

Today we go to the supermarket and buy a small bag of cornmeal, but the pioneers never had that option. After the corn was harvested from their little corn patch, it had to be husked; the kernels would then have to be ground into cornmeal. The homesteaders used the meal to make mush, porridge or various kinds of corn bread – ashcake, hoecake, Johnnycake, or corn pone. For a special treat, ears of corn were roasted.

The pioneers raised cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens. They also hunted fowl and other game for much of their meat supply. Many meals consisted of wild duck, pigeon or turkey, or bear, buffalo, deer, opossum, raccoon, rabbit or squirrel. Wild razorback hogs were hunted farther south in the Ozark hills, but I don’t believe they were ever present in our neck of the woods. Boiled or roasted beaver tails from the local creeks were considered a delicacy.

The pioneers had no refrigeration, but they knew how to keep meat from spoiling. They would cut some kinds of meat into strips and dry them in the sun. They also smoked the strips over a fire. Other meats, especially pork, kept well after being salted or soaked in brine.

So, salt was in very great demand on the frontier for preserving and seasoning food. It brought a high price from traders who traveled the back roads selling it by the barrel from the back of a wagon. Instead of paying the high price, some homesteaders would band together once a year and travel down the Missouri River to the Boone salt licks in Saline County, Missouri where natural salt formed on the ground. Wild animals came there to lick the salt, so a trip to the salt lick was worthwhile for the settlers. There was good hunting at the salt lick, and the men folk took home enough salt to supply the settlement for a year.

Chopping firewood in Saline County was a wintertime job. After the salt was mined, the water had to be boiled out of it, which took a great deal of firewood. Many a pioneer from our neighborhood hired themselves out to the salt makers during the long winter months to cut cordwood.

Raising vegetables and herbs was a job for the women and girls. Most of the vegetables planted by the pioneers could be cooked into hearty meals – beans, cabbages, potatoes, squash and turnips. Herbs included sage and dill. In the summertime, no table was complete without wild greens such as dandelions, dock, wild lettuce and lambsquarters, which grew abundantly. There were also mushrooms and wild honey, fruits and berries such as raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and mulberries. Persimmons, paw-paws, wild plums, and crab apples were thicker than fleas on the old coon dog.

Milk from the family cow and sage tea were the chief mealtime drinks. Coffee was too expensive and was only served when company came calling. Whiskey, made from corn, was a popular drink. The pioneers sometimes mixed corn whiskey with milk, added some sweetening, and served it to the entire family. Common sweetening on the frontier included honey, molasses and maple sugar or maple syrup.

Reference: “Corn: From Farm to Market,” by Winifred Hammond.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.