Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cooking Up A Tale Of The Old West by Laurel Natale

Wow! In preparation for my contribution to this blog, I read through the previous posts and was blown away by the valuable information and interesting variety of subjects presented.  Despite the imputation that we write "bodice rippers", it is intriguing to note the serious manner in which historical writers approach the background material of our books.   As a reader as well as a writer of historical fiction, it is this wealth of information that adds spice to the characters and settings and keeps me coming back for more.

My forthcoming book, currently titled "Heart of Gold", is about gold mining in 1870's Arizona Territory, and the research for this subject was fascinating.  However, as the title of this blog implies, it is food, not gold, I believe, that centers the heroine, Deidre.  In fact, food seems to be an integral part of all my heroines, whether Regency ladies, modern day Repo Girls, or Medieval damsels.  Not surprisingly, food and cooking are at the center of my real life romance as well.  I love to cook, love to eat, and enjoy nothing more than sharing my expertise with my family and friends.

So, what did gold miners in the Old West eat?  Meat and potatoes, bread and cereals, eggs and bacon, ham, corned beef and other smoked or preserved meats, fish and shellfish, some vegetables (mostly corn and carrots, onions and the occasional greens), fresh and canned fruit, dried peas and beans.  Of course, these items were part of the everyday diet all over America, varying by geographic area, local availability and  financial status.  Deidre and Matt ate mostly bacon which was easily stored and could be used as cooked slices or as seasoning for beans.  Although fresh meat was available in stores at times, Deidre and Matt relied on Dee's prowess as a hunter of small game.  Many a bunny met his demise at her hands and was served fried or roasted. 

True to her upbringing in the mountains of West Virginia, Dee's culinary skills centered on those bunnies, stewed cuts of chicken or beef, beans slow cooked with molasses, bacon and onions, and fish fried or roasted over the fire.  Flour, lard and salt were the basics for quickbreads like biscuits and dumplings.  Eggs and milk added to make flapjacks or even the occasional cake or doughnuts.  A taste for sweets was satisfied by poorly refined sugar, which was purchased in a large paper-wrapped cone, and honey which was purchased or found in the wild.  Coffee was the primary beverage in the working West, but in cities, or areas with farms, Americans were noted to be prodigous milk drinkers by visiting Europeans. 

The railroads and the advent of food canning in both Mason jars and tin cans made it possibe for even those living in non-farming areas to purchase a wider variety of foods.   These items were costly, however, and if people were poor or frugal (like Matt and Dee), their diet was unvaried and unhealthy.  Only root vegetables would ship and sell with relative ease: potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips.  Many of the items Dee would have cooked at home, such as collard and mustard greens seasoned with bacon or a ham hock and ramps, a wild onion with a strong garlic flavor were not available in arid Arizona, however.  The family milk cow would have expanded the diet with milk, cheese, butter and cream, making possible the favored cake for weddings and celebrations, fruit cake. They did have "canned cow" however, which was the cowboy name for canned milk.

Another major difference in cooking for Deidre in Arizona, as for many western cooks (including the all-important Chuck Wagon cook) was the lack of a stove and oven.  Frontier cooks relied on a variety of pans and pots to cook over an open fire.  Fortunate cooks were able to buy cast iron bars that would swing out over the fire and could be pulled from over the flames to regulate cooking speed and ti stir the food.  A large kettle with a metal handle would rest on the bar and was used to cook soups, stews and  any food requiring long, slow cooking.  Another frequently used pot was the Dutch Oven, a three legged deep pot that sat in the coals and had a lid.  Hot coals were piled on the lid to provide heat from sll sides.  At times the lid was used to cook biscuits to go with the soup or stew being cooked inside.  A third pan, called a spider, was a shallow skillet on three legs  used for biscuits, pancakes and frying bacon, eggs and meats. 

All in all, producing a mouth-watering meal in a cabin was an art.  If you're not sure about this, light a campfire in the backyard and try one of the following recipes for yourself.  If you are short of bunnies, try chicken.  Bon Appetit!


2 young rabbits or squirrels (dressed)
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. marjoram
1/2 stick butter (melted)
1/3 c. vegetable oil (to be authentic substitute lard for oil and butter)

Cut dressed rabbit or squirrel into serving pieces. Cut ribs from back or remove loin. Mix all dry ingredients. Mix butter and oil, coat pieces with oil. Dredge in seasoned flour and place on rack in foil lined 9x13x2 inch pan. Bake, uncovered, in preheated 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until tender.


1 lb pinto beans or Navy beans
Seasoning meat-(bacon, salt pork, ham bone, ham hock, etc.)
1 large onion, chopped up and divided in half
salt, pepper, bay leaf-(optional)
Cajun seasoning (chopped celery, green pepper)
In a pot, add the seasoning meat with enough water to cover, cook down, break up the pieces of meat.
Pick over beans, removing imperfect beans, stones, etc. Rinse well and drain.
Transfer beans to pot. Cover beans with water, then add 1 to 2 cups more! Add half of the onion, and some of the seasonings.
Cook on medium until boiling, lower the temperature and cook for several hours until the liquid has thickened, but with enough to be soupy. Adjust seasonings and add other half of the onion.
Cornmeal Dumplings-(traditionally they are dropped into the hot pot just like regular dumplings but my daughter doesn't like dumplings that way so I came up with baking them instead and it works!)

Cornmeal Dumplings:
Self-Rising Cornmeal and All Purpose Flour-equal parts, mix with milk. Form into ball, add more flour if needed, to prevent sticking, cut ball in half, lay on an ungreased baking sheet.
Bake until browned. Remove from pan and let cool. To serve, add the baked cornmeal dumplings into the bowl, ladle soup beans on top, let it soak into the dumplings.(It will be crispy like a cracker but with the taste of cornbread.)Enjoy!
Submitted by: Patrice Farmer

Fruit Cake
6 eggs
1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup butter (use lard for authenticity)
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup fruit juice (orange juice or wild grape juice)
3 cups seedless raisins
3 cups dates, chopped
2 cups walnuts or pecans
2 cups cherries, cut up (dried)
2 cups pineapple, cut up (dried)
Combine chopped dates, nuts, candied fruit, honey and fruit juice. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time and add to fruit mixture. Sift flour together with salt and baking soda. Mix into liquid mixture. Put into loaf pans or tube pan. (put in Dutch oven, put lid on and pile coals on top)
Bake in slow oven, 275°F, for 1-1/2 hours or until wooden pick comes out clean. Don't over bake.

Of course, if you don't want to chance setting your yard on fire, you can do the recipes indoors as originally written.   Good luck and happy eating.    Laurel Natale

1 comment:

Paty Jager said...

Fun Information Laurel.