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Period stove purchased for the series.
reparing the foods that they had laboriously raised, dried, hunted, or smoked was another time-consuming aspect of food preparation. For many frontier families, the fireplace was the primary means of cooking. Fireplace cooking necessitated the use of a complicated system of hooks and brackets over the flames, from which pots and kettles were hung. Settlers also made great use of "dutch ovens," half-cylinders of tin which sat in front of the fire and cooked meats. Though cookstoves were increasingly available, and offered such startling conveniences as broilers, ovens, and hot water heaters, they still had to be continuously supplied with fuel and banked at night. Cookstoves also tended to belch ashes into the air, and fill the home with a variety of noxious fumes.

Homesteaders were often short on containers for food storage. Former kerosene cans were pressed into service, and could be used "for two or three years, until the can discolored the fruit, or until it made the juice black, and tasting of tin."

The success of cooking in either fireplaces or stoves was largely based on intuition, guesswork, and luck. One popular guide advised, "You know your oven is ready for baking when you can hold your hand in it for twenty seconds but no longer," while another suggested the following scientific method:

"To test the oven put a half a sheet of writing paper [in it]; if it catches fire the oven is too hot; open the dampers and wait ten minutes, then put in another piece of paper; if it blackens it is still too hot. Ten minutes later put in a third piece; if it gets dark brown, then the oven is right for a small pastry. This is 'Dark brown paper heat.' Light brown paper heat is suitable for vol-au-vents or fruit pies. Dark yellow paper heat for large pieces of pastry or meat pies, bread, etc. To obtain these various degrees of heat try the paper every ten minutes till the heat required for the purpose is attained."

Recipes were equally sketchy. Though cookbooks existed, most dishes were handed down orally from mother to daughter. Rather than careful measurements of ingredients, foods were prepared with "a pinch" of this and "a fistful" of that. Many frontierwomen would have been dumbfounded if asked to write down their favorite recipes.

Lack of supplies and lack of cash led many pioneers to dream up "alternative versions" of favorite dishes, as well as to substitute, improvise, and invent while cooking. Molasses stood in for sugar. Vinegar could be used to imitate lemons. Boiled, mashed beans mixed with plenty of nutmeg and allspice made a lovely pumpkin pie. Catharine Beecher revealed that "two tablespoonfuls of snow, stewed in quickly [to the batter] is equal to one egg in puddings or pan cakes." Another frontier cook determined that you could stew up "orange marmalade" by boiling carrots in a sugary syrup flavored with ginger.

While contemporary stomachs might turn at the quality of the salty, fatty dishes served in frontier houses, it must be kept in mind that most homesteaders were engaged in relentless daily physical labor. The conditions they lived with on a daily basis -- including the tasks associated with preparing their food -- burned far more calories than the average twenty-minute workout. A nice green salad with tofu wouldn't serve you too well if you were sleeping in a room where it was 20 degrees below zero. Frontier food on the tended to be simple, heavy, and "rib-sticking." Nebraska homesteader Myrtle Oxford Hersh observed, "We had food which met the needs of growing bodies, and we did not have to keep a bottle of vitamins from A to Z to keep us in good health."


Works Consulted:

Beecher, Catharine. MISS BEECHER'S HOUSEKEEPER AND HEALTHKEEPER. New York: Harper, 1873.

Beecher, Catharine, and Stowe, Harriet Beecher. THE NEW HOUSEKEEPER'S MANUAL: EMBRACING A NEW REVISED EDITION OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN'S HOME. New York: J.B. Ford and Co, 1873.

Brown, Dee. THE GENTLE TAMERS. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Lynes, Russell. THE DOMESTICATED AMERICANS. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

PIONEER MEMORIES. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.

Strasser, Susan. NEVER DONE: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN HOUSEWORK. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Tyree, Marion Cabell. HOUSEKEEPING IN OLD VIRGINIA. Louisville: John P. Morton and Co., 1879.


Williams, Jacqueline B. THE WAY WE ATE: PACIFIC NORTHWEST COOKING, 1843-1900. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press.

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