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Pioneer Cooking Methods and Recipes

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The pioneers lived a rough, dangerous, and demanding life. The men had to be farmers, hunters, trappers, skilled carpenters, and skillful with weapons, especially the rifle. The women did much heavy farm work, raised and cared for the children, cooked, spun yarn, and wove cloth. There were no doctors and medical care had to be improvised. A serious illness or injury often meant death and epidemics were devastating.

The pioneer diet was simple, consisting primarily of corn and game. Corn was preferred because it could be easily preserved and salt was used to preserve meat. Eventually, as conditions improved, so did diet, clothing, and the availability of other essentials. Pioneers built their own homes (often helping one another in the hard work), grew and hunted their own food, made their own yarn and cloth, bullets, candles, medicines, shoes, and other necessities. In every pioneer house there was a stone pitcher kept especially for the pancake batter.This pitcher was never empty.The batter will have been mixed the night before in this stone pitcher, with a little yeast used for leavening.One third of the batter will be left in the pitcher to “mother” the next batch mixed. Kept in a cool place, the left-over batter will not spoil. If it should chance to freeze, so much the better, freezing will improve the quality of the batter.

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Sometimes meat or fish would be served at breakfast, and after the arrival of the bake kettle or Dutch Oven, sweets could be made and served also at the morning meal.

Corn was a common food of the pioneer family. It had to be shelled before it could be ground into meal. Shelling of corn was a chore for small children. It was often done in front of the fireplace on winter nights. Corncobs were saved to help start a fire and to smoke some meats.
The most common bread was made from corn meal, salt, and water. This was known as corn pone or hoecake. Cornbread was made from corn meal, eggs and buttermilk. It was cooked in the dutch oven covered with coals.

Pumpkins were one of the most useful of the vegetables. They could be kept fresh by putting them in a dry, cool place. Pumpkin was mixed with corn meal to make pumpkin bread. It could be baked whole or mashed up. Staple food for the settlers was the barn and salt pork smoked by hickory log fire, dried beef, wild turkey, wild geese and deer. There would also be dried corn, dried apples, peaches and other fruits would be preserved in huge stone jars. The famous johnny cake, made of flour and corn meal and sweet-dried with molasses or honey and baked in ashes, was used for bread. The cacklin’ corn bread, served with hop jowl and greens, was considered a feast.

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Guidelines for Storing Meat

In the 1800’s people in the West didn’t have a refrigerator or freezer to keep their meat fresh, so they used other means.  Below are summer guidelines for storing meat.  Incidentally, we don’t recommend your trying these methods today.  They are not that dependable.

Cover the meat with sour milk or buttermilk and store in a cellar.

In areas where the nights are cool, hang the meat in the open from a tree so any breeze can pass around it.  Make sure the meat is brought inside at dawn.  During the day wrap the meat in a tarp and store in a shady place.  Make sure the blow flies don’t deposit eggs on the meat.

Keep the meat away from rain and damp nights.  Any meat that gets wet must be cooked or jerked immediately.Fresh meat was cooked by broiling, frying, boiling, and roasting. Meat was preserved by being salted, smoked or pickled. Pork or ham was the most common meat of the mountain people.

Fruits and Vegetables

Vegetables and fruits were cooked fresh or preserved by drying or pickling. Jelly could be made from wild grapes and blackberries.The entire family helped with the making of apple butter. Long hours were spent cutting up the apples. Before sunup of the big day a fire was started under a large copper kettle. The apples were added and the cooking began. All day the apples cooked over a slow fire. The apples always had to be stirred, so as not to burn them. By the end of the day, the apple butter would be done and put away in jars for the winter.


There was not much sugar in the pioneer’s kitchen. Honey, maple syrup and sorghum molasses were used to sweeten foods. Bees were kept in hollow pieces of the tree trunks. The bees made the honey. Maple sugar could be made by boiling down maple tree sap. Molasses was made by boiling down the liquid from mashed sorghum cane.

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Pioneer Recipes:

Cornmeal Mush

1 cup cornmeal
4 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon lard or butter
1 teaspoon salt
dried currents (raisins) optional
Put currents into water and bring to a boil. Sprinkle cornmeal into the boiling water stirring constantly, adding butter and salt. Cook for about 3 minutes, then portion into bowls. Can be topped with milk, butter, sugar or molasses.


1 beaten egg
3/8 cup milk
1/2 cup water
1 Tablespoon melted lard (vegetable oil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1 Tablespoon sugar

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Drop by tablespoon onto hot greased griddle or skillet. Fry on each side until browned, about 2 minutes. Serve with butter and syrup. Makes about 12 small cakes.

Stuffing For A Turkey-From an 1888 cookbook

Mix thoroughly a quart of stale bread, very finely grated;
the grated rind of a lemon;
quarter of an ounce of minced parsley and thyme,
one part thyme, two parts parsley;
and pepper and salt to season.

Add to these one unbeaten egg and half a cup of butter;
mix all well together and moisten with hot water or milk.

Other herbs than parsley or thyme may be used if preferred, and a little onion, finely minced, added if desired.

The proportions given here may be increased when more is required.



Other useful resources:


Pioneer Survival – Lessons We Should All Learn
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