Old-Time Methods of Preserving Food
Mid-continent pioneers were mainly English, Scots and Irish
whose fathers had followed Boone from the Piedmont across
the Appalachian mountains into Tennessee and Kentucky.
There, when the war of 1812 broke out, sons and footloose
males enlisted to march and fight in Canada. Returning from
this fruitless and ill-timed venture, the soldiers were
rewarded with land grant bonuses in the newly-opened
Arkansas Territory. Many married, started a family and
moved west. Some intermarried with the civilized Indian
nations–the Cherokees and Creeks–of the Big
These pioneers were familiar with wilderness living and at
home on the sparsely settled. frontiers of our growing
country. Already many, like Boone, were beginning to feel
crowded and in need of elbow room and fresh scenery.
The men were hunters and trappers for the most part. Game
was plentiful and meat could be had for the shooting at
almost every cabin door. Their cash crops were bear skins,
bear bacon and bear grease which was used for lubrication,
for cooking, as a butter substitute and to slick down
rebellious hair. But mainly the frontiersmen were
self-sufficient: They mined lead for balls for their
muzzle-loading rifles; they made gunpowder from powdered
charcoal, sulphur and the saltpeter found in bat caves.
Wives and mothers were capable gardeners and had brought
with them bean, pumpkin, turnip and a few other vegetable
seeds. And, of course, flowers. They had zinnias, which
they called “Old Maids”, and balsam, which they knew as
“Touch-me-nots” and a living sucker of purple lilac which
soon flourished at every cabin door.
Many of the early arrivals came on foot, with pack horses
or driving heavy-laden cows. Some even trundled their few
household goods in wheelbarrows along the forest traits.
Roads, over which oxen could draw covered wagons, had yet
to be cleared. Under these conditions, space was at a
premium and food supplies had to be light in weight and
easily portable. Modern methods of canning in glass jars
were still unknown and the diet of fresh meat was
supplemented by foods the pioneer wife could preserve by
drying. She was amazingly adept at preserving food, and quick to learn
new techniques from the Indian women who were her
One of the most common dishes bore the colloquial name of
“leather-britches.” It was simply green beans, patiently
threaded on a stout string and dried. The rafters of a
well-stocked cabin would be festooned with strands of these
dried beans. When the home-maker wished to prepare a meal
she had to plan well ahead, for the dried beans needed to
be soaked twenty-four hours and longer to soften. They were
then cooked with salt and perhaps a chunk of bear bacon or
fat-back from a home-butchered hog. Dried shelled beans
were, of course, a familiar food, as were cornfield peas
(usually the crowder variety of black-eye peas.) Pumpkins
were peeled, cut into narrow strips and dried for late
winter use beyond the season of cave-stored vegetables and
The year around staple was corn and every family tried to
grow enough to provide meal from one growing season to the
next. Times were hard when the corn ran short and, as soon
as the fresh crop had reached the firm kernel stage, the
pioneer mother used it to make “gritted” or grated bread.
This was a delicious pudding-like bread that much resembled
the familiar spoonbreads.
Corn was also made into hominy, and hominy was often dried
for “grits”. Roasting ears were a welcome treat in season
and the pioneers learned to preserve this delicacy by
cutting the cooked kernels from the cob and drying them.
This dried precooked corn could be reconstituted by soaking
in water and cooking. The process yielded a delightfully
different, caramelized flavor unknown to modern homemakers.
Popcorn was also grown, and one old-timer tells of a great
grandmother who used popcorn to prepare a breakfast cereal
long before the days of the patented, packaged puffed
gains. She popped the corn, ground it coarsely and served
it in a bowl with sorghum and rich, spring-cooled cream.
Corn was also the K-ration when game and other foods were
scarce and for hunters on prolonged trips. In the War
between the States it was nearly standard fare for the
hard-fighting Confederates. Corn was (and still is) light,
portable, almost non-perishable and easily prepared. It can
even be eaten raw: Soaked overnight and parched in a
skillet with a bit of bacon or pork fat, this gain made a
nourishing and sustaining battle ration for those with
sound teeth and stout jaw muscles. And when corn gave out,
large sweet acorns were often gathered and parched (see
Food Without Farming in MOTHER EARTH NEWS No. 3) as a
satisfying substitute. Seeds of apple, peach and pear trees
were carried to their new homes by the settlers and soon
grew into flourishing, fruitful trees. Apples were peeled,
cored, sliced into rings and dried; peaches were simply
halved and dried; and pears were similarly treated although
usually an effort was made to remove the seeds.
Wild fruits such as strawberries, huckleberries, fox gapes,
raspberries, blackberries, sarvis berries, currants and
gooseberries were dried and used as we use raisins. They
could also be soaked in water and cooked into sauces or
made into pies, tarts and cobblers, as were the dried tree
fruits. Wild persimmons were gathered in season, carefully
pulped and spread out to dry into “persimmon leather.” This
was a quarter-inch thick, tough, leather-like article (see
Persimmons in MOTHER EARTH NEWS No. 5) which would keep
indefinitely and, when wanted, could be cut into small
pieces for soaking and cooking.
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