A paper presented to the Historical Society in March 1972.
Cooking in Pioneer Days
Tonight we are going to pay a visit to a pioneer home where we, in imagination, will see a pioneer housewife at work and, as is the custom, will be invited to partake of whatever meal she is preparing.
This home may be made of logs or, perhaps it is the first frame house.In either case, the kitchen is the main room, the one in which the housewife cooks, weaves, spins and does many other chores needful to make a comfortable home for her husband and family.
This room will contain, besides the spinning wheel and the loom, a large table, some benches with perhaps a winged arm chair at the fireplace, all being handmade.There will be few cooking utensils because this is the late eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries and all cooking is done at the fireplace which occupies almost half of one wall.
It is morning, not long after dawn, but already a good fire is blazing in the fireplace, for has not Great-grandfather been up since dawn broke in the eastern sky and replenished the fire that had been banked the night before? Great-grandmother soon follows her hard-working husband. She it is who will cook for him a hearty breakfast, knowing that he will need it by the time he finishes his many chores outdoors.
The food prepared will depend upon the ethnic group from which Great-grandmother descended.If a Scot, she will prepare the main dish from oat meal.She will use the meal stone ground in a nearby mill. This porridge will be served with plenty of milk and will be eaten in a standing position, for every good Scot knows that is the proper way to eat oat meal porridge, each spoonful being dunked into milk or cream served in a separate dish.This hearty dish of good oatmeal will be followed by bannock or scones. Great-grandmother will mix her dough for the bannock with a light hand and she will be careful to use a clockwise motion when mixing, otherwise she may bring bad luck to her household.Great-grandmother will use flour, salt, milk and a little butter in making the bannock, which she will form into a large cake about an inch thick, she will then sweep the hearth clean, place the cake thereon, cover it with a thin layer of cool ashes, then a layer of hot ashes and live coals, and by the time Great-grandfather has finished his big dish of oatmeal, the bannock will be ready to be eaten. If there are daughters in the family, they too, will enjoy the bannock, because it is tradition amongst the Scots that the lassie who eats bannock will have beauty of skin and sweetness of temper.
If the good man of the house likes variety, his wife may cook “scones” for his breakfast, made much like the bannock but in smaller size, the same recipe used, and cooked in the same manner. After Great-grandmother acquired a “spider” which is an iron utensil similar to our frying-pan but with legs, she would use it in which to cook the “scones” or bannock. It had a cover as well as legs and could be pushed well into the fire place to speed up the cooking.
Another breakfast dish often eaten in this home was pancakes. These were made of buckwheat stone-ground in the grist-mill on the stream, and cooked in the spider. For sweetening Great-grandfather liked wild honey and later on molasses.
In every pioneer house there was a stone pitcher kept especially for the pancake batter.This pitcher was never empty.The batter will have been mixed the night before in this stone pitcher, with a little yeast used for leavening.One third of the batter will be left in the pitcher to “mother” the next batch mixed. Kept in a cool place, the left-over batter will not spoil. If it should chance to freeze, so much the better, freezing will improve the quality of the batter.
Sometimes meat or fish would be served at breakfast, and after the arrival of the bake kettle or Dutch Oven, sweets could be made and served also at the morning meal.
We have seen Great-grandmother preparing the morning meal but what of dinner, which she considered to be the main meal of the day? If we arrive in time for the noon meal, we shall be invited to partake of a dish of tasty soup. Before the days of bake kettles, soup was often served at every meal because soups could be cooked in the large iron pot (in some cases the only cooking utensil the pioneer housewife had) which hung suspended from the crane over the roaring fire. Great-grandmother was a very thrifty person; nothing was ever wasted. This was exemplified in soup-making, for any left overs, be they meat, scraps, bread, vegetables, scraps of wild game or fowl, all found their way into the soup pot. Great-grandfather was heard to say, “She's a real wife what takes the bother to brew a good pot of soup”.
In lean times when nothing else was available, soup was made from bones alone.This soup had to be cooked for several days in order to extract the last morsel of good gelatin which formed the entire content of this soup.In every pound of bone, Great-grandmother extracted five ounces of the precious gelatin. As the years passed and (as) the vegetables were grown, also herbs, they were added to the soups to give it variety and taste.One soup made in those far off times was called “Portable Soup” or “Pocket Soup”.This Pocket Soup was made by slowly simmering stock for 12 hours then boiling rapidly for another 8 hours, stirring constantly all the while.The boiling reduced the amount of liquid and the solid stock was then formed into little cakes and dried.These were especially useful when the men of the family went hunting.They would carry the little cakes in their pockets, eat them either in solid form or with water added they had a delicious soup.
Great-grandmother knew the value of beans and peas in the diet and in winter, after they were well dried, (she) made delicious soups from these.
Fresh meat was available in Great-grandmother's day in the form of moose, deer, or caribou and rabbits. We have to remember that there were no fridges in the pioneer home, so keeping meat in warm weather was a problem. It could be frozen in winter. If it should become tainted in summer it was never thrown out, but washed in vinegar. If badly tainted, it was buried in the earth for several hours then eaten. Wild fowl was soaked in milk for from 12 to 18 hours to sweeten it.
The fresh meat could be cooked on the spit which was the only method of roasting before the days of the bake kettle.The spit was made to revolve for even cooking.Great-grandmother placed the spider under the roast to catch the dripping, and also placed a piece of tin behind the roast as a reflector.The meat roasted this way was very tasty and when served with potatoes, which were grown in the burned-over ground, made a hearty meal.
As soon as dinner was over Great-grandmother began to plan her supper.One supper dish often served was made from Indian corn meal boiled in milk.Preparation for this began as soon as dinner was served because it required long and slow cooking.The cornmeal was stirred into the pot of milk to make a thick batter and allowed to bubble and splutter all afternoon.Eaten with wild honey it made a nutritious meal. Later molasses or brown sugar made a flavourful sweetening for it.Bannock, scones or pancakes rounded out the meal.
A dish often made for the growing children was called “Whole Wheat Fromity”. This could only be made after the advent of the bake oven.The whole wheat kernels were placed in water in astone jar and cooked in the bake oven until the kernels burst.The following day this mass would be jelled, then an amount would be taken, thinned with milk, sweetened, then cooked for another half hour. This made a good supper dish for the children.
It was a great day when the bake oven was added to the fireplace.Great-grandmother could then make bread into loaves.She knew the art of making yeast, grew her own hops and made her yeast from grated potatoes, water and hops (boiled).This yeast was kept in a stone jug and, like the pancake batter, a little was always left to start a new jugful.
It took a whole day to heat the bake oven.Because of that, bread was baked at night.Before retiring, the dough was formed into loaves and with the help of a long handled wooden shovel called a “peel”, the loaves were placed in the oven, the door carefully closed, and there they remained all night. In the morning when taken from the oven, they were a lovely golden colour and a delight to eat. Great-grandmother was very careful not to turn a loaf of bread upside down because she believed she might upset a ship at sea. By the middle of the 19th century the bake oven and oftentimes the fireplace were sealed off and the iron cook-stove substituted.This made Great-grandmother's cooking much easier.
If Great-grandmother was of Irish descent, she would be adept at making soda bread, or potato cakes for her family.The soda bread batter was much like the bannock, except firmer and it was mixed with buttermilk with a little soda added.The potato cakes were made with mashed potatoes, a little flour and salt and fried on the hearth or on the griddle on top of the stove in the form of triangular cakes.
A word must be said here for the Scottish oat bread, made of nutty-flavoured oat meal, a little butter and mixed with sweet milk.These cakes were rolled thin, cut in squares and baked on the hearth, later in the bake oven.They were quite hard when cooked, but were nutritious and eaten without any sweetening.
After the advent of the bake oven, cookies were made. Great-grandmother used a bottle for a rolling pin, and a cup or mug for a cutter.She oiled paper on which the cookies were baked.
Our Great-grandmothers never heard of vitamins, but their foods contained those needs.In summer when wild fruits abounded, they were gathered, some of them, such as blueberries and strawberries were dried and used as desserts in winter.Rose hips were also gathered and eaten.Apples were peeled and quartered, strung on string, hung over a pole in the kitchen where they dried and were used for sauces and dumplings which were boiled in the big iron pot.Thus we see what a busy life these pioneer housekeepers led.With it all, they were courageous, thrifty, hard-working but happy and kind.To them we owe a debt of gratitude, for through their courage they helped to build the future for us, their descendants.
Great-grandmother knew how to prepare and cook the manykinds of fish, including salmon, found in the rivers.She made tasty chowders with milk and fish and, after the first crop of potatoes was harvested, added some to her supper dish which was made in the iron pot hanging over the fire.(The word chowder is said to come from the French “Chaudiere”, the name given to a type of iron pot in which it was made.) Fish soaked in brine for 48 hours, then smoked from 2-4 hours made a tasty dish when fresh fish were not available.
Clams, mussels and eels were also eaten fresh in season.Great-grandma knew how to preserve the clams and mussels for winter use.They were piled in mounds near the shore and covered with sand, then in winter when needed, the ice and snow that accumulated over them, would be moved, sometimes with a great deal of work, then they would be used in chowders or boiled.
Great-grandma knew how to make do when she had to. When her last spoonful of tea was gone, she would resort to stewing teaberry leaves or the leaves of Labrador tea.There were no complaints in those hard times.
We noted that many of the dishes cooked in her day required long hours of stirring.It is in this chore that the younger members of the family would be of use, which would give Great-grandmother time to spin or weave or do some other household chore.Days were filled with hard work for all, but all were rewarded with seeing their land being cleared and the farm taking shape.No tranquilizers or sleeping pills were available but none was needed. Bedtime came early, following family prayers and each member was rewarded with hours of restful slumber, so that when morning dawned all faced the new day with renewed courage, hope and strength – that last coming from the good wholesome food they consumed each day, along with their Christian faith – that of their Fathers- which sustained them during those hard times. We of today owe a deep debt of gratitude to these courageous pioneers, the founders of our homes and communities.
 Indebted to Mrs Marie Nightengale for this information.