Feeding a family in the 1800s was a full-time job
for both pioneer men and women.

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Historical Background

  • Northeastern Industrialization 1800 – 1850; improved fireplace & hearth cooking tools, cookbooks.

  • War of 1812; Creek Indian (Redstick) War 1813 - 1814; Alabama became a state 1819; southern pioneers learned many meal options from natives - including corn, corn bread, grits, squash, melons & game.

  • Indian Removal 1830 – 1839; survived on fish, game, roots & berries on the Trail of Tears.

  • Mormon Trail 1846 – 1868; all families required to pack a Dutch Oven for the journey out west.

  • Civil War 1861 – 1865; Union troops required to carry 4 days rations in their haversacks (hardtack or wheat bread & coffee); confederate troops ate hoecakes (corn bread), shared rations, and cooked as a squad.

  • Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 1863.

  • Texas to Kansas Cattle Drives 1856 – 1896; Charles (Chuck) Goodnight recruited cowboys by offering good-tasting meals cooked by a good (male) cook using Dutch ovens carried in a Chuck Wagon.

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  • Dozens of foundrys emerged in the eastern states between 1800 and 1890, and they made thousands of cast iron hollowware pieces with long gate marks on the bottom.

  • Although wooden friction matches (Lucifers) were developed in 1829, many pioneers had to start their fires with flint and steel.

  • Although wood cook stoves were available after 1740, many families continued to cook in large indoor and outdoor fireplaces until 1900. 

  • Some southern families used Afrian slaves or free servants as cooks.

Meal Preparation

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  • Some food was grown in a garden or raised in the barnyard, but wild game had to be killed in the forrest, fish had to be caught in the streams or ponds, and some food had to be purchased from a general store with money earned from cash crops or trade items.

  • Many foods were only available for a few months and had to be preserved for the rest of the year.

  • Women usually built fires and cooked most of the meals while wearing large dresses, petticoats & aprons. Men occasionally cooked but usually processed fire wood, caught fish, killed game, cared for livestock, worked in factories (north) or worked in fields (south).

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  • One large meal was cooked every day and served in mid-afternoon.

  • Meals were cooked on indoor fire place with stone hearth in cold weather and outdoor fireplace (or summer kitchen) in hot weather. Indoor kitchens were hot and smoky.

  • Lug-poles or cranes were used for hanging pots over the fire.

  • Fires were started on andirons (or log dogs) by mid-morning and allowed to burn an hour or two before baking.

  • Pots of water were set near fire for cooking, safety, dehumidifying & cleaning.

  • Meats, vegetables, breads, and deserts were usually cooked in a three or four cast iron cooking vessels.

    Cast iron skillets and ovens were oiled and pre-heated before adding food. Food was cooked with low heat.

  • Pots of beans and stews were hung over fire on lug-poles or cranes.

  • Pot hangers, trammels, trivets, shovel, long tongs, poker & bellows were used to adjust the heat. 

  • Hot coals were shoveled under and on top of spiders and ovens to bake breads, deserts, and other foods. Could not use too many coals or fire would die; had to learn best amount of coals under & over to bake each different food.

  • Burns were avoided by using hot pads, aprons, leather gloves, wooden utensils & lid lifters.

  • Left-overs were eaten until the next meal. Men frequently carried their left overs in haver (oat) sacks.

Spiders, Skillets, and Griddles

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  • Smooth cook surface, thin walls & light weight.

  • Size: outside diameter (OD) or size of smoke ring.

  • Legs: long or short; faceted, D-shaped, or round.

  • Handles: attached at rim or half-way down; round rat tail or flat; plain or fancy; no hole or hang hole; round, elongated, or teardrop hole; pointed, rounded, or teardrop end.

  • Foot rim (aka smoke or heat ring): outside or inside; to elevate bottom above gate mark so that pan would sit flat or seal stove opening.

  • Lips: one or two, large or small, curved or angular

  • Lids: flat or domed.

 

Hearth Ovens, Camp Ovens and Dutch Ovens

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  • Size: outside diameter (OD), size of smoke ring, or quart capacity.

  • Legs: faceted, D-shaped, or round.

  • Ears: vertical or flat; angular, flat, or round.

  • Bail handle: thick or thin; removable hinge or permanent.

  • Lids: flat with lip (camp oven) or domed (Dutch oven).

Other Cast Iron Pieces

  • Cauldrons, pots, kettles, chicken fryers, muffin pans, corn stick pans & waffle irons.

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Vegetables

  • Render bacon or salt pork

  • Sauté onions & peppers, add 1 cup hot water & seasonings, add vegetables (potatoes, corn, beans, or greens)

One-pot Stews

  • Boil, grill, or sear meat: beef, chicken, pork, rabbit, squirrel, venison or fish

  • Add 4 cups hot water, add vegetables (carrots, onions, potatoes, peppers, corn, celery & lima beans), add seasonings (salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, garlic, cumin, cloves, bay leaves, cilantro & bullion) & thicken with rice or flour.

Bread & Deserts

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  • Hoe Cakes or Jonny Cakes: corn meal, salt & water. For better taste add egg, milk instead of water, sour cream, butter, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, jalapeños, onion & corn (optional). Fry in skillet like pancake.

  • Loaf bread, hardtack, bannock, sour dough (starter), dumplings, biscuits, pancakes, waffles & hot cross buns.

  • Puddings, cobblers, dump cakes, baked apples, cakes, gingerbread, muffins & brownies.


Benefits of Cooking with Cast Iron

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  • Economical

  • Makes food taste better

  • Experts say it is healthier

  • Pots and pans can be used with any stove or campfire

  • Easy to cook and clean

  • Lasts forever

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Recommendations

  • Historical societies should buy antique gate-marked cast iron hollowware and other antique kitchen ware and create hearth cooking exhibits in their museums for public education. When possible, present hearth cooking demonstrations.

  • Historically minded individuals should visit local antique stores and buy a #7 or #8 (10-inch) vintage skillet and start cooking pioneer dishes. For example, hoe cakes are well known, easy to make, and very tasty.

  • Griswold (1865 - 1957) is the lightest and smoothest skillet - and can be found for less than $50. Wagner (1881 – 1999), Lodge (1896 – present), Birmingham Stove & Range aka BSR (1902 – 1989), Martin Stove & Range (1919 - 1955) & Vollrath (1874 – 1945) are also good brands. Most skillets with smoke (or heat) rings were made between 1900 and 1940. Skillets marked “Made in U.S.A.” were made after 1960.

  • Before buying a used antique or vintage skillet, check for warpage and cracks.

  • After buying an antique or vintage skillet, clean it well and season it. Remove baked-on (sticky) food by heating up-side down in 500 degree oven for 2 hours, turn off heat, and allow to cool in oven for another hour. Remove rust by soaking in white vinegar overnight and brush with a wire brush. Season by applying a light coat of Crisco, place in oven, heat to 300 degree, remove after 5 minutes, wipe away excess oil & allow to cool. Repeat once or twice. Watch YouTube videos to learn alternate procedures.

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  • If you live on a tight budget, you may want to consider a modern Lodge skillet. They are heavy and have a rough cooking surface, but are economically priced and reportedly cook as well as older cast iron skillets.

  • Although many people use economically-priced cast iron skillets made in Asia, I would avoid them.

  • Individuals should also buy a 10-inch (4-quart or #8) flat bottom camp or dutch oven (without legs) with a flat lid (lipped ledge) to hold coals - and start baking a few pioneer breads and deserts. These flat bottom ovens can be used on any stove top or oven - and can be set on a hearth trivet to bake with charcoal or wood coals. But, finding them can be difficult. Bayou Classic and Camp Chef make flat bottom ovens with flat lids and Lodge sells flat 10-inch lids in their factory outlet stores that fit Lodge and most vintage 10 inch (4-quart) flat-bottom ovens.

  • First, practice baking foods in your oven; then with charcoal briquets; and lastly, with wood fire coals.

Cast Iron Care

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  • Oil pan or pot with butter, bacon grease, or Crisco and pre-heat it before cooking any food.

  • Prevent sweet foods from sticking by using a baking dish, aluminum foil bowl, or flouring sides.

  • Cook with low heat.

  • Use wooden or bamboo utensils.

  • Never add cold water in hot pots.

  • Clean inside by wiping with clean rag and using hot water & brush to remove stuck-on food; occasionally may have to use paint scraper to remove stuck on food; avoid soap and metal utensils.

  • After cooking on a wood fire, clean outside soot with soap & water.

References

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  • Modern Tent Camping videos on YouTube. Topics include axes, firewood processing, cast iron cookware, camp kitchen setup, and campfire cooking.

  • Sowbelly and Sourdough: Original recipes from the trail drives and cow camps of the 1800s by Scott Gregory, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho, 1995.

  • The Camper’s Handbook (1908) by Thomas Hiram Holding, Simpkin Marshall Hamilton Kent & Co., London, England, 1908.

  • Camping and Woodcraft: A handbook for vacation campers & for travelers in the wilderness by Horace Kephart, McMillan, New York, 1917.

  • The First American Cookbook: A facsimile of “American Cookery” (1796) by Amelia Simmons, Dover Publications, New York; 1984.

  • Log Cabin Cooking: Pioneer recipes & food lore by Barbara Swell, Native Ground Music, Asheville, N.C., 1996.

  • Early American Cast Iron Holloware: Pots, kettles, teakettles, and skillets 1645 - 1900 by John Tyler, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PN., 2013.

  • The Little House Cookbook: Frontier foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Stories by Barbara M. Walker, Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, 1979.

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