The Pioneer Diet

The talk around the water cooler these days is about “The Pioneer Diet” – a diet where you eat like the pioneers, fresh and natural foods. No preservatives of course, nothing processed and nothing from a jar or can. Well, I have a problem with that, as the pioneers pioneered  preservatives and canning. Here is an account of the real pioneer diet from PBS:

The majority of vegetables grown in the garden or fruits picked from the wild were immediately preserved for the long winter months, since scurvy was a constant threat and settlers did their best to keep a well-balanced diet. Catharine Beecher, sister of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a sort of 19th-century version of Martha Stewart, wrote in 1873,

“A thrifty and generous provider will see to it that her store-closet is furnished with such a variety of articles that successive changes can be made in diet for a good length of time.”

By far, the most common method of preserving fruits and some types of vegetables was to dry them. Fruit was set under cheesecloth in the sun (one homesteader insisted that the cabin roof was an ideal place to dry fruit), until it became shriveled and hard. This dried fruit was then hung in a cellar or storeroom until needed. Months later, when the fruit was eaten, it was soaked in water, and then stewed with sugar, to make it palatable. Even so, stewed fruit was often leathery and tasteless. The 1858 introduction of the Mason jar, with its rubber ring and wire clamp, did little to decrease the amount of time dedicated to preserving settlers’ scanty supplies of fruits and vegetables.

Drying and stewing fruit was a picnic compared to the elaborate rituals involved in the preparation and preservation of meat. If settlers lived near a sizable town or city, they relied on a meat market. Homesteaders who had been on their homesteads for a period of time might have a few chickens, but it took a substantial period of time to build up a sizable flock. Most homesteaders obtained their fresh meat by hunting. In an area such as Montana, homesteaders would have had access to deer, pheasant, wild turkey, rabbits, bears, and a variety of fish. However, once game was killed, it almost immediately had to be prepared or preserved. In summer months, meat would go bad in an afternoon.

If meat was to be kept for a few days, settlers par-boiled or par-roasted it, and finished cooking it immediately before eating. If it started to go bad, women’s magazines suggested to “try rubbing a little salt on it, to restore its nourishing qualities.”

Settlers had other means of preserving meats for longer periods of time. To pickle meat, homesteaders essentially salted it to the point that it would no longer rot. Catharine Beecher offered the following procedure in her Homekeeper and Healthkeeper’s Companion:

“To preserve one hundred pounds of beef, you will need four quarts of rock salt, pounded fine; four ounces of saltpeter, pounded fine; and four pounds of brown sugar. Mix these well. Put a layer of meat in the bottom of a barrel, with a thin layer of the mixture under it. Pack the meat into the barrel in layers, and between each layer put proportions of the mixture, allowing a little more to the top layer. Then, pour in brine till the barrel is full … if the brine ever looks bloody, or smells badly, it must be scalded, and more salt put to it, and poured over the meat.”

Brine was saltwater that was traditionally “strong enough to float an egg.” Preserved in this way, homesteaders could keep meats for weeks and months at a time. However, like the other staple of pioneer diet, salt pork, “salted down” meat had to be laboriously rinsed, scrubbed, and soaked before consumption. One of the few positive aspects of winter on the frontier was that meat could be hung outside and frozen, or, as Catharine Beecher noted, “packed carefully with snow in a barrel.” Settlers with access to wood also cured their meats in smokehouses, a process that involved feeding a smoky fire under the meat for days — and weeks — at a time.

And lastly, lunch meat seems to take a lot of heat but most lunch meat is natural and just contains a little salt water (Oscar Meyer, Hillshire Farms, etc).

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