Saturday, February 28, 2009

Wild gathered food items: Hops

Recently a new foodie follower asked for more information about wild gathered foods the Mormon pioneers might have used. In my forthcoming book, there is a whole chapter about wild gathered food items, but right now I'm away from home without the full disposal of my research notes. To reward a fellow foodie who asked a specific question I write this:

The early Mormon settlers considered the wilderness around them as just an extension of their gardens. Beginning with the exodus from Nauvoo, they made wild food items a significant part of their diet. The notable example of the miracle of the quail introduced the phenomenon, but even once settled in the Rocky Mountains, wild foods continued to figure significantly in their diet and economy.

Emily Stewart crossed the plains in these early years as a young girl and grew up in the viscinity of Kaysville. As she was growing up, she ate an abundance of pigweed in the early lean years. She also ate sego bulbs, ground cherries, choke cherries and other berries harvested from the foothills and canyons above Kaysville. She noted that her father gathered saleratus from the shores of Great Salt Lake and used it in place of baking soda to raise the biscuits he baked for his family. Wild foods were a substantial part of the Stewart family diet and economy.

As she grew up in such lean circumstances, Emily noted that she never had underwear to wear. But upon her 16th birthday, she decided that if she was ever going to find a husband, she would need some underwear. To this end, she went to the canyon once more that summer to pick hops. This wild herb carries a diverse set of properties utilized by early Mormon settlers for medicinal and culinary uses. Patty Sessions and Eliza Partridge both used hops to make tea when camped at Winter Quarters. Hops are also used in beer brewing as a preservative and bittering agent. Grocers in Salt Lake City paid Emily Stewart $0.50/lb. for her wild hops, and she earned enough to buy several yards of fabric to sew her underclothes. Emily Stewart married John Barnes as his third wife, and her experience is related in her own words in The Grim Years by Claude Teancum Barnes.

Hops still grow wild in many places today. The flower is used fresh. The flower is often about an inch big, looking like many fine feathery leaves piled in a conical shape (see illustration, right side center). Gather the hops while they are still young and green, before they turn dry and papery. You might use a handful of fresh hops in making a pot of tea. You can also buy compressed hop pellets at your local home brewing store, and at some health food stores. In spring time, hops rhiozomes (root starts) can sometimes be bought if you want to try growing this spreading vine at home.

Other wild-gathered food items to explore: wild meats (especially fish in Utah county), berries of all sorts, sego bulbs, salt, saleratus, wild sources of sweetening, and a variety of wild medicinals...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

All about YEAST!

So then, y'all may have seen my recent appearance in the DesNews via "Mormon Times". You can see the whole article here. Basically it was a rehash of the Brigham Young doughnuts I posted a month ago. I was rather flattered with all the new hits that showed up here on the blog. Thanks to all my new friends. I hope you might tell me what sort of historical foodways you'd be interested in reading. I'd be happy to drum up a bit of new research for an appreciative audience.

But back to the doughnuts... they spent a little effort looking into the saleratus issue. Bancroft's History of Utah says that the pioneers used naturally occurring saleratus (like a natural form of soda) gathered near Independence Rock in Wyoming. Bancroft says this was their exclusive leavening for the first five years in Utah. I'm not sure I buy that... why would they suddenly be robbed of a technology they were familiar with before they came to Utah?

At any rate, it got me thinking about the yeast issue again, so here's a short bit of information on yeast. Naturally, the pioneers didn't have Fleishmans' dry active yeast to work with. Individual pioneers kept their own yeast cultures in spite of very inaccurate understanding of microbiology. Pioneer Regina Erickson remembered her mother's stoneware crock where she "used to keep a start of live yeast, set on top of the coal stove warming oven near the back where the temperature was right. I remember licking off the bubbles of yeast as the jar overflowed, and it tasted good.”

The DesNews gives us some specifics about how this culture could be sustained. Naturally, you'd have to have a bit of yeast to begin with, and then this could be multiplied over time, and replenished as it was used. On Nov. 30, 1854, the DesNews published these directions for maintaining a yeast culture:
“To Make Yeast: Hop yeast may be most conveniently made in the following manner: Boil a double handful of hops in a gallon of pure soft water for fifteen or twenty minutes; strain off the liquor while scalding hot; stir in wheat meal or flour till a thick batter is formed; let it stand till it becomes blood warm; add a pint of good lively fresh yeast, and stir it well; then let it stand at a place where it will keep at a temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, till it becomes perfectly light. This yeast will keep from one to two weeks, if corked tight in a clean earthen jug, and kept in a cool cellar.”

A strikingly similar direction is given in the Deseret Cookbook (1981). Though these early settlers knew next to nothing about microbiology, they still managed to propagate yeast for baking. Some bakers bought their yeast instead of culturing it themselves. Both bakeries and beer breweries in Salt Lake City advertised yeast for sale to home bakers and brewers in the 1850s.

So there ya go... a bit of history about yeast. Someone go give it a try and let us know how it goes!

Monday, February 2, 2009

In the News: Mormon Tea!

On January 20, 2009, Bob Montanez wrote the following in a letter to the editor of the Ogden Standard-Examiner:

"Brigham Young banned the use of caffeine, alcohol and stimulants, but approved drinking "Mormon Tea" as a beverage. This is also used for bronchial and cold medication made from the ephedra plant, stronger than caffeine or any stimulant. Ephedrine is the main ingredient used with precursors, making it 35 times stronger to make methamphetamine or illegal street drugs better known as "meth", "speed", "ice" or "go fast." These are some of the most dangerous illegal drugs in use by addicts today. Ephedrine, known as "whites," can be purchased in truck stops to keep drivers awake. This drug is in full view of children. The ephedra plant grows wild in southern Utah."

His rant was aimed at demonstrating the silliness of the "Zion Curtain" portion of Utah's liquor laws, but that is beside the point. The thing we're concerned with is the validity of this claim that: 1) Brigham Young specifically ordained and advocated the use of the ephedra plant; and 2) wild native ephedra has medicinal properties.

I've been chasing after this elusive goal for quite some time, and I have yet to find any primary source (Brigham Young, or otherwise) identifying tea made from the ephedra plant that grows indigenous to Utah. I have found several other primary sources which show that Brigham Young and many other pioneer settlers drank a sort of tea made from herbs and spices, carrying the name of either "composition tea" or "hot pepper tea." One source called this tea insipid, and another called it the "Mormon Highball." I have found plenty of references to this tea (and also recipes), but not a single reference to the ephedra to which Bob Montanez alludes.

In the LDS Historical Archives in Salt Lake City, there are a couple of extracts from journal articles from the 1970s that call the native ephedra plant "mormon tea" but this appears to be an attribution of the latter half of the twentieth century.

As for Bob's claim that you can get seriously hopped up by drinking ephedra tea-- I imagine there is a great difference between a pharmaceudical grade of ephedra, and tea made from wild plants. Further, my preliminary research shows that although there are some physical commonalities between the appearance of Utah's native ephedra and that of the Chinese medicinal variety, Utah's version has been lab tested to show that it holds no medicinal value. Although the Utah and Chinese plants share the same genus, the medicinal properties are separated in the species and varietals.

If anyone thinks they can cite a primary source for Mormons using native ephedra during Brigham Young's lifetime, I would greatly appreciate the information. But my money is bet on the more likely prospect that it just didn't happen. So next time, I'll tell you all about "Composition Tea." Until then, cast a dubious eye on people like Bob who claim some historical understanding, but fail to cite their primary sources. Why, I could just as easily claim that Brigham Young thought Adam was God! Wait a minute... I think I might have a source on that somewhere... be right back...