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Food
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Vintage Cookbooks: A sweet taste of Oregon Trail pioneer spirit

Thursday, September 02, 1999

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"The women cooked up a real good feed [tonight]. We had buffalo stew and I got a couple of chunks of the hump. It was good. There ain't much in the way of green, but the women did pretty well with what they could find along the way. Wild onions sure helped the stew."


These words come from the journal of Ahio Scott Watt, who was 19 when he and his parents emigrated from St. Louis, Mo., to Oregon in 1848 over the Oregon Trail. Such a journey could take six months. Hostile Indians weren't as much a problem as poor sanitation. One in 10 immigrants died of cholera or accidents.

We know about Watt and thousands of others through letters and journals preserved by their descendants.

Chef Leslie J. Whipple compiled some of that history along with legends, memories and cherished recipes in "The Oregon Trail Cookbook," published in 1992.

She writes: "At the heart of this [difficult] journey was the daily struggle to feed the family." Pioneer dishes included bison steak, baked salmon with wild mushrooms, oxtail soup, sausage and egg bake, frontier hazelnut-vegetable pie, gooseberry dumplings, eggless-milkless-butterless cake, burnt leather cake and spudnuts.

While she standardized most recipes in the collection, Whipple decided contributions "of significant historical interest" should be reproduced as she received them, "too charming to change."

For example: "For noodles, break 2 eggs in a bowl. Add some salt. Add 2 1/2 eggshells of cream. Put in flour to make a stiff dough. Cover and let set for a while, about as long as it takes to sweep and dust. Roll thin, cut and hang on broom handle which has been placed on the backs of dining room chairs. Use when dry."

Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were among the first making the trip in 1836. Sarah Smith, a missionary's wife who crossed the country just two years later, forgot her rolling pin and bread board, but made do. She wrote home, "Rolled the crust with a crooked stick in a hollow bark of a cottonwood tree Mr. S. peeled off. Baked [the meat pies] in the tin baker out doors in the wind, but they were good and we have had a good supper."

Cookbook contributor Marcia Gray said her grandmother remembered her mother making Salt Pork and Fried Apples on the wagon train: "Cut half a pound of salt pork in slices. Fry slowly in a deep frying pan. When done, take up on a hot dish. Wash and slice six sour apples. Put apples into the frying pan and cook in the gravy until tender. Serve hot with the pork."

Pregnancy wasn't uncommon on the trail and, according to directions in this recipe, prairie schooners apparently came equipped with at least one baby: "Mix one-half cup sourdough starter with one cup milk. Cover and set it in the wagon near the baby to keep warm ... pinch off pieces of dough the size of the baby's hand."

Whipple includes home remedies and folk treatments as a curiosity and a glimpse into the healing arts of that time. "Headache cure: Slice one slice from a fresh cucumber. Apply to the forehead, it will adhere. The cucumber is both soothing and curing for a mild headache."

The last chapter of "Oregon Trail Cookbook" showcases Pacific Northwest chefs who donated recipes that "celebrate the heritage and legacy of those who (like Whipple) made Oregon their home."

Before roads, the Oregon Trail was the only "practical corridor to the entire western United States." Between the start of "the great migration" of 1843 and 1869, when the transcontinental railroad made it obsolete, more than half a million people made the journey west on the Oregon Trail. Some went all the way to the Willamette Valley, others split off for California in search of gold. Without so many American pioneers settling the western territories, it's quite likely Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah might now be part of Mexico or Canada.

Vegetation growing in a straight line and faint wheel ruts are all that's left of the Oregon Trail, but preservation groups are working to protect this national historic treasure and collectors such as Whipple are preserving the food history.

Recipe correction

The milk was left out of the recipe for Grandma’s French Fudge in last Thursday’s Vintage Cookbook column. The corrected recipe follows:

Grandma’s French Fudge

3 cups sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
3/4 cup milk
1 cup coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup nuts, chopped (optional)

Butter a 9-by-9-inch pan.

Combine first four ingredients in a heavy, medium-size saucepan. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, stir and cook slowly until mixture turns a golden color.

When fudge reaches the soft-ball stage (234 degrees), quickly remove from heat and stir in vanilla and nuts.

Pour into prepared pan and, when cool, cut and store in an airtight container.

Note: For best results, use a candy thermometer. Overcooking will result first in taffy and then brittle. Undercooking will leave you with ice cream topping.

"The Oregon Trail Cookbook," Leslie J. Whipple, ed., 1992,



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