Pioneer Food

Pioneer Food

I hope you're not tired of hearing about pioneering because we've just gotten to the best part, which is the food. Not coincidentally, most of what I did was cooking, so food is the thing I now know the most about.

The first thing we did was churn butter. This is Marie saying something hilarious, is as her wont, and April looking at her with the pure love anyone who meets her probably feels. April is also churning butter.

Butter, of course, splashes when it is still cream, and that's why there's a cloth around the opening of the crock. I say "of course" but I'd never have thought about that. It does take a long time to make butter, and a lot of power. Marie, April, Brandon, and I all churned for a while. The faster you go, the faster it goes, but it starts to kill your arms pretty quickly.

What I thought was interesting was that often toward the end people think that suddenly their butter has vanished, because all they hear is splashing. Not so! That's because the butter is hard enough for the churner to hit it, making you think it's the bottom of the crock. The splashing is the buttermilk. You're done!

Except not. After you pour off the buttermilk, you have to wash the butter, or it'll go rancid very quickly. You do this by putting it in a bowl and pouring water over it. You cut the butter with the water with a paddle, pour the water off, pour new water in, and do it again and again until the water is completely clear. I had no idea that was a part of making butter.

I didn't take a picture of the butter, because it looked like butter. You can't take a picture of the taste, which was sweet and creamy and just as gosh-darn wholesome as you'd imagine. What I did take a picture of was the buttermilk, because I was fascinated by it. It tasted good.

Buttermilk from the supermarket makes delicious muffins, but if you drink it straight, it's thick and sour and gross. Fresh buttermilk is slightly sweet, and tastes like very thin milk with butter in it . . . but in a good way. It was tasty. I put it in my coffee and I did not regret it.

Marie had kindly made supper for us on Friday night; the butter was for our cornbread. Which she had been keeping warm in a Dutch oven under a pile of coals. G how Q. (Gosh how quaint.)

The butter is in the wee crockery next to the cornbread. The bowl with the plate on it is bacon - it's soaking because it's salted and dried and needed to be rehydrated and de-salted. The plate is to keep the flies off. The pitcher with the rag on top is full of water; the rag is to keep the flies out. The assortment of other crockery holds cornflower and salt and hard maple sugar with a rock to grate it into things. I can't hold it in: GOSH HOW QUAINT.

In case you wondered, yes: that was the cornbread with the ancient egg in it. It tasted perfectly fine. I wish that story had a more interesting ending, but on the other hand, I don't.

I think we ate corn flour at every meal, which is probably entirely accurate. For 3-4 people, I'd estimate we used at least 2 cups a day. Which would be six hours of nonstop grinding. Aside from the sheer physical labor, think of the endless pounding. Pioneers would not have been allowed to have migraines. You'd have to send migrainey children off on an ice floe or something. I would've been useless.

In the morning, Brandon made eggs, bacon, and corn mush. Here he is hard at work, because the cook has no internal alarm clock and wasn't attending to her proper gender role. (Proper gender roles are how they oppress us.)

Let's talk about that pot of corn mush. I have fed my characters corn mush on many occasions. I treated it like they'd think it was fairly normal, but secretly I pitied them. It's literally boiled corn flour, which doesn't sound appealing no matter how you look at it. Poor, destitute pioneers, eating something with "mush" in the name.

Well! Marie told us to boil that mush until a spoon would stand up in it and not a moment less, and it would be good. Rebels that we are, we boiled it less, because it takes a long time and some of us needed to get down to the barn to work. But it was still pretty thick by the time we dished it out, and I almost regret to say it was very good! Especially with some maple sugar. Like oatmeal, but made of corn. I liked it so much I bought some corn flour so I can make it on a weekend sometime.

It's terrible if you don't cook it long enough, though, as we found out the next day. Yes, that's right, a dish called corn mush is not forgiving and requires some level actual skill. It's a cruel world.

For dinner (a.k.a. lunch), we had cream of pumpkin soup and leftover cornbread. The lovely thing about pioneering is that nothing is complicated. The soup was a half-gallon of milk, some salt, a smidge of maple, and a pumpkin. I chopped up the pumpkin, boiled it, strained the skins out, mixed it with milk, and it was done. And it turned out the skins that were left in were yummy. But there was no pureeing, no worrying about consistency or color or whatever. It just all boiled in a pot, and then we ate it. No nonsense.

For supper (a.k.a. dinner), I twirled a chicken with considerable help from Allison. Sounds like a nineteenth-century version of the chicken dance, but it is not. A twirled chicken has two spikes stuck through it and is hung from a string over the fire, where you twirl it so that it cooks evenly on all sides. Then you flip it upside-down and twirl it again. Like a rotisserie. It's tricky because you have to tie up the chicken legs and the wings, and then you have to balance it just right when you put the stakes through, or it won't cook evenly. I literally could not tie it without Allison's help, and I had to do one of the stakes three times. And then I could not remember to keep twirling it, and basting it was dreadful because being that close to the fire was unbearably hot. Interestingly, Allison didn't feel the heat as much as I did, because she's so used to it. Similarly, Marie specifically told us, "Do as I say, not as I do. Don't touch anything without an oven mitt, even if I do. I can't feel heat in my hands anymore, but you can!"

Allison is a person of saintly patience. In spite of my difficulty, the chicken came out quite well. With it, we had corn meal fritters with sage in them. I do not understand how anyone whipped egg whites until they were stiff before electric hand mixers. Decades upon decades, maybe centuries? of women have been stiffening egg whites by hand, and I do not understand how. The fritters (you can see one at the top of the post) came out pretty good even with kinda soupy egg whites, thankfully. Anything fried in lard is bound to be pretty good in the end.

That's the other thing about pioneer food: there isn't a whole lot of it, but it's heavy. They knew how to pack in the calories.

On that note, the thrilling conclusion to the Cheetos story. April retrieved hers on Friday night from their hiding spot in Miss Hog's fence, but not after some trouble and minor panic, because she had hidden them very well. I retrieved mine on Saturday night, after one false start, because there are a lot of suitable hiding places in stone walls, and it was dark at the time, and also I don't usually hide food in walls. Pretty much a one-off.

April and I repeated giggled over Operation Snacks, but in all honesty, after only 36 hours of pioneer cooking, the Cheetos tasted sort of weird and . . . not like food. A pioneer probably would have assumed they were poison. Which is probably true.

More food next time.

More Pioneer Food

More Pioneer Food

Pioneer Zoo

Pioneer Zoo