They lived on very little but, typically, had enough food to survive. The cooking techniques were quite laborious and primitive, and the rare trips to the general store always were filled with excitement.
The girls might get a piece of candy or some ribbon to wear in their hair, but most importantly, Ma and Pa bought the pantry staples such as cornmeal, dried beans, coffee, gun powder, nails and maybe a new pot.
Molasses was the cheapest form of sugar and used in pies, beans and other simple cakes. It was considered a luxury and used sparingly. They bought cornmeal because the corn crop was usually limited and didn't last throughout the year.
Self-sufficiency was a way of life in pioneer days, but there were staples and supplies the general store offered for money or trade. Hopefully, the store was only a day's ride away, but during times when the weather was unfavorable, this meant stocking up for months at a time and hoping the few things in the cupboard would last until spring.
In addition to housekeeping, gardening and tending to the children and animals, the women had to draw water daily, prepare and cook meals that took several hours, build and tend to the fire, dress the meat and boil water for cleaning the pots and washing the clothes. Not to mention milking the cow, skimming the milk and churning butter.
From “The Little House Cookbook” author, Barbara Walker described that the typical housewife's week went like this: Wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, mend on Wednesday, churn on Thursday, clean on Friday, bake on Saturday and cook and rest on Sunday. This plan allowed for a possible Sunday dinner and visit with neighbors, fresh butter and baked goods and your best clothes and linens clean.
Most of the food came from hunting, trapping or growing. There was no science of nutrition or attention paid to fat, calories or vitamins. The food was heavy, but the family members were used to hard labor, endured extreme weather and often went through lean times when little food was available.
Modern technology has eased much of the painstaking efforts that were commonly related to housekeeping and providing meals. Now, when we cook over open fire, it's usually done for fun as part of a camping trip, or enjoying the outdoors.
In my family, we sometimes like to enjoy Dutch oven classics of the past. My father will build a bonfire and pull out the pots. One will always be filled with a cobbler and the others a stew or some beans.
I've included a recipe for cobbler from dad's Boy Scouts days in Missouri, along with Cowgirl Stew a creation of mine that offers a spicy little kick. The frontier housewives didn't have a box of cake mix or other modern ingredients, but the recipes still honor the techniques of the past.
Jerry's Boy Scout Cobbler
1 large can of peaches
1 package of white cake mix
1 stick of margarine
Preheat the Dutch oven over your fire. Pour the whole can of peaches and juice into the pan. Add the dry cake mix on top of the peaches. Place several pieces of margarine on top and sprinkle cinnamon over all. Place the lid on the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes until cake is cooked through. If the cake seems to dry you can dribble about 1/2 cup of milk over the top and cook for another 10 minutes. Other fruits or pie fillings can be used.
2 slices bacon, diced
1 to 2 pounds stew meat, 1 inch pieces
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons barbecue meat rub, divided (I use Stanley's Famous Rib Rub)
3 tablespoons flour
1 onion, sliced
2 carrots, small dice
1 12-ounce ale style beer (I use Shiner Bock)
1 can diced tomatoes, with chipotle
1 cup beef broth
1 cup water
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
Salt and pepper, to taste
Place the meat in a large bowl. Add the brown sugar and two tablespoons of barbecue rub. Rub the seasoning in the meat and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. After the meat is ready, render the fat from the bacon over medium heat in a large cast iron Dutch oven. Remove the pieces of bacon and set aside while leaving the fat in the pan. While the fat is still hot add the meat and let it brown on both sides. Add the flour, onions and carrots and stir to combine. Pour in the beer and let it come to a boil and reduce by half. Add the tomatoes, broth, water, reserved bacon pieces and remaining tablespoon of meat rub. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook over very low heat for about three hours or until the meat is fork tender. Watch the liquid level and add more water or broth, if necessary. Add the peas at the end of the cooking process and stir to warm through. Taste and add salt and pepper to season. Serve with thick-sliced toasted bread or rice. Note: This recipe can be made on the stove or in a Dutch oven over open-fire. Let your pot preheat over the coals before starting. To control your heat, reposition your coals and move the pot closer or further from the fire. Always use a hook and heavy-fire resistant work gloves when repositioning the pot. The diced tomatoes with chipotle add a slight, smoky heat to the stew. If you don't want this spice just use a can of plain, diced tomatoes.