Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Food is one of those things that is at the very center of culture. When trying to understand a people group and their lifestyle, food is a key ingredient in that study.
Here in the United States, we eat foods from a wide variety of cultures, much more so than what you can find in other countries around the world. At the same time, we have “americanized” those foods, adding out own twist to them.
Pizza for example, an American favorite, is much different here than it is in Italy. If you order pizza there, you’ll get a round piece of bread, with some herbs on it. That’s about it.
Even our mozzarella cheese is different than theirs, as they make mozzarella cheese daily, using it while it is still soft. I imagine an Italian immigrant, seeing our version of mozzarella cheese in the grocery store would think that they were selling “old” cheese.
Many of the foods people have eaten throughout history are based upon availability. Truffles, which are extremely rare and expensive today, were once something eaten by the poor people of Europe, as they could gather them themselves.
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Through time, the availability of those truffles has dwindled, to the point where they are now only used in very small quantities, in gourmet foods. People living near the equator don’t eat seals, because there aren’t any, while people living in the Arctic Circle consume them as part of their regular diet.
As we have become more “civilized” (at least in our own minds), our ideas of what is acceptable cuisine has changed as well. Most women living in the 1800s thought nothing of having to butcher and defeather a chicken, duck, goose, or turkey, while the average housewife today would be appalled at the idea of having to do that.
To many people, fish (as a food, rather than something pretty to look at) comes in rectangular pieces that are breaded. Were we to put a whole cooked fish on their plate, they would probably scream and run away.
Yet many of the foods that our ancestors ate were healthy and nutritious, providing them with the energy needed for hard physical work. So, while those foods may not seem like the first things that we would put on our own menus, they are foods that can help us stay healthy, especially in times of hardship.
1. Beaver Tail
One of the more unusual sounding foods from the frontier was beaver tails. Beaver was hunted for their pelts, which were highly valued for making top hats, before the style changed and silk was the preferred material.
But the beaver tail, which was not used in the making of those hats had its own use. The beaver stored energy, in the form of fat, in their tail, much as camels do in their humps and bears do in preparation for hibernation.
We don’t think of it today, in a day where saturated fats are universally frowned upon by nutritionists, but fat was one of the more difficult nutrients to come by on the frontier. Wild game typically has very little fat, yet that fat is high in calories, which our digestive system breaks down into simple sugars to provide energy to our muscles.
Beaver tail was roasted over a fire, once the leathery skin is removed. This produces something much like pork rinds. It has been replaced in modern culture, partially due to the relative rarity of beaver and partially because we prefer to get our fat from potato chips and cookies.
Salt pork is similar to bacon, but without anywhere near as much meat. A typical slice of salt pork will have a thin strip of meat down the center, surrounded by fat. It was a staple in Army rations, with soldiers cutting their own slices of salt pork from an issue piece and frying them.
Half-cooked by today’s standards, and slipped between the two halves of a biscuit, it did provide the fat necessary to give soldiers the calories that they needed. Salt was used to preserve the pork, hopefully killing the bacteria and other parasites as well.
2. Cured Meats
Cured meats go back all the way to the European Middle Ages, where they were created as a means of both preserving meat and finding a way of making tougher, less desirable pieces of meat from an animal slaughtered edible. Much of what we know today as “deli meat” started out as cured meats, although most of it isn’t actually cured today.
There are many types of cured meats, each made to specific recipes, but they all share some things in common. The meat used in making these is generally ground and mixed with fat to make it more tender.
Spices and especially salt are added to this meat mixture to give it the particular flavor sought. Specific quantities of nitrates are added to help in the curing process. However, excess nitrites must be avoided. The meat is then stored in a cold place, giving time for the salt to work its way all through the meat, killing the bacteria.
We can still make our own cured meats today, but it requires having a refrigerator with enough room for the meat to hang, during the curing process.
Lard, rendered from animal fat, was the main “cooking oil” of the past. Those who live in areas with high populations of people of Mexican decent may find lard in their local supermarket, as it is critical in the preparation of tamales and flour tortillas.
Properly prepared, lard doesn’t grow mold, but it can go rancid. This made rendering lard a common occurrence on the frontier. Lard can be readily substituted for shortening, cooking oil or butter, even today.
Lard is most often rendered from pig fat. All the fat that can be scavenged from the carcass is used, in order to have enough to make it worth the trouble. This includes the fat that surrounds organs, like the kidneys, to protect them; but also includes back fat, what we would normally think of as bacon, and fat on the edges of all cuts of meat.
By the way, pigs raised for rendering lard are different breeds than those used for getting bacon from, so be sure to raise the right kinds of hogs.
Probably one of the most common sources of meat during the pioneering days was squirrel. While a single squirrel doesn’t contain much meat, they are in abundance, making them easy to hunt, either around the homestead or while traveling.
The trick in hunting squirrel is that the firearms of the day were too large a caliber for the animal being shot. A .50 caliber bullet from a rifle would probably blow away half the meat in the animal, while killing it.
They didn’t have .22LR rifles, which would be the firearm of choice today. Rather, they would “bark” the squirrel, hitting the branch it was sitting on, so as to cause the bark of the tree to explode off of it, hitting the squirrel with the bark and either stunning or killing it.
Squirrel can either be cleaned, skinned and roasted or the meat can be stripped from the carcass and cooked. However, it is usually easier to roast the meat and them remove it from the bones, in order to use it for soups and stews.
5. Other Rodents
All sorts of rodents, from mice to rabbits, have been eaten at one time or another. While they don’t have as much meat as larger game, rodents are in abundance and multiply rapidly, making them an easy addition to the larder. Rabbit is still considered to be a delicacy in some circles.
I remember hearing about native American children hunting baby mice and eating them whole. They would follow a field mouse back to its hole, digging up the hole to find the baby mice inside. These would be grabbed by the tail and dipped in honey to make them slide down their throats easily.
A popular European delicacy that was brought to these lands by settlers. Turtles used to be much more commonplace and easier to catch, making them a popular food. Generally used in soups, once you get through the hard shell, there aren’t many bones in the way.
Speaking of reptiles, people who settled in the Louisiana bayou quickly recognized the food value of the predators of the area, alligators. A fully-grown alligator has a lot of meat on it, even though they are a bit hard to kill.
There is a “sweet spot” just behind the rectangular hard plate on top of their heads, about the size of a golf ball. Hit that area, and you’ve just bagged a ‘gator. Even a .380 ACP bullet, placed in this spot, will kill it. Otherwise, you’re better off taking a shot down its open mouth, as the hide of a gator is all but impossible to penetrate.
Alligators have a lot of fat, necessary because they don’t feed often. The fat is very gamey tasting, so you want to dispose of that when cleaning and butchering the animal. An eight-foot-long gator will yield about 40 pounds of meat. Smaller gators are better for eating, as the larger they are, the tougher the meat.
8. Animal Organs
There are many parts of an animal which we don’t knowingly eat today, although they may be eaten in other countries. Brains, hearts, liver and other organs would be eaten, rather than allowing the meat to go to waste.
While those might not show up in place of a steak on one’s plate, they would often find their way into a soup or stew, diced up, cooked and mixed into the soup.
While we still eat some types of squash today, it isn’t anywhere near as commonplace as it was during the pioneering days. There are many different types of squash, such as pumpkin, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, butternut squash, honeynut squash, and the buffalo gourd. Squash was popular to grow in those times, as they held a lot of calories and stored extremely well in a root cellar.
Many meals were based upon some sort of squash, generally made into a soup. What meat they had, such as a squirrel, was added to this, providing protein and flavor.
10. Chicory Coffee
In times and places where coffee was hard to come by, people would either replace that coffee or stretch their coffee supply by mixing it with chicory root. The root would be minced, roasted, ground and then either mixed with coffee grounds or brewed solo to make coffee.
11. Bread Pudding
This is one of the few foods on this list which some people still eat today; although our reason for eating it isn’t the same. People living on the frontier couldn’t afford to waste anything. Making bread pudding gave them a way of using bread crusts, leftover ends and other scrap pieces.
One thing to keep in mind, is that the bread they ate back then was much denser than most of what we eat today. You couldn’t get Wonder bread, and the leavening that was usually used, was bacteria captured from the air or sourdough starter. This only caused the bread to rise a little, compared to the yeast or baking soda used in baking bread today.
To make bread pudding, roughly two cups of stale bread is used, cubed. This is mixed with milk, sugar, butter or lard, a couple of eggs and a pinch of salt. mixed together, this is placed in a Dutch oven, which is put in the coals of the fire to bake.
Fritters are pan baked or deep-fried mixtures of food. They became a great way of using up leftovers, much like “left side of the refrigerator soup.” Almost anything can be used in making them, which made fritters a great way of using vegetables found on a foraging trip.
A basic fritter recipe requires either mashed potatoes, flour or both. The other ingredients are cut up and added to this “batter,” and then either fried in oil or more commonly, deep fried.
13. Corn Soup
Corn was one of the better crops to grow on the frontier, both because of the amount of yield they would get from an acre of corn and because of the ease of separating the edible corn from the rest of the plant. Corn can either be cooked directly or dried and used as a grain.
Cornbread, which we still eat today, especially in the South, is a pioneer recipe. It was easier for people who had to grind their grains in order to bake with them to grind corn, than to grind wheat or other grains.
Dried corn could be rehydrated in the stock pot, turning it into soup. Greens, peppers, potatoes, eggs and meat could be added to this, using whatever was at hand to make a savory soup.
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