Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Now we're getting serious!

Okay so you've probably noticed some mysterious looking changes to the blog lately. In the next couple of days the new buttons will become functional, and there will be a couple more new buttons as well. All this is for you, my friends.

Once I get the buttons up and going I'll be doing some give-aways with pioneer-related stuff. Or at least pioneer foodie type stuff. The goal here is to increase followers, page views and comments. I've got some fantastic gourmet raw honey. I've got a couple of aprons with the site logo. I've got some of those wonderful sourdough cultures that Sherm turned me on to. And more. Its all for you my friends.

So here's the deal. When I say, "On your marks, get set..." Wait for it... I'll start giving the stuff away to those who can come up with legitimate pioneer foodways or recipes tied to particular Mormon pioneers (has to be at least pre-1900, preferably earlier). We'll post all the submissions here on the site in a special section for reader-generated content. So start thinking about how far you can trace that Christmas pudding back in your genealogy!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seasons of Food

Lately I've been thinking about the cyles of seasons and how they affect our food. Well, let's take that back. The seasons don't affect our food these days so much, but historically they did. As we read in the food admonitions of the D&C, "all things of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for man's benefit" (59:18), and in the Word of Wisdom, "use every herb in it's season" (89:11). But these days, we eat salad in January, and fresh beef in July.

A few modern food philosophers are still advocating a return to seasonal food. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle found that eating local to reduce one's carbon footprint also mandated eating seasonally. (I recommend this book if you want to change your thinking about food.) Michael Pollan likewise makes a strong case for eating seasonally in his gastro-philosophical work In Defense of Food: an eater's manifesto. Though most of America might eat in ignorance of their food origins, some are really taking seasonality to heart.

With the cooler weather we had our inagural soup this week. My good wife made a chowder with kielbasa sausage, butternut squash, and cheddar cheese. I had four helpings. I was excited about it because I love soup season more than salad season. It got me thinking about how my approach to food has changed over the past couple of years.

As I've been doing these pioneer food experiments I've moved more and more to a seasonal approach to food. Part of that has to do with raising my own garden. Once you plant a garden it yields so much bounty that you have no choice but to set about eating it as fast as you can. This makes our summer meals exceptionally fresh and filled with vegetables. Then as the fall harvest comes on I feel negligent if we don't put some of it away for winter. Naturally winter demands more hearty meals from preserved foods (like our sauerkraut). And by spring we're just itching for something fresh again so we plant lettuce and radishes early.

All of this seasonality leaves me feeling more connected to my food. I have a greater ownership of it, and I get just a little put out when I have to eat away from home. Further, it brings the seasons to have a more profound, almost spiritual meaning in my life. It fills me with a sense of wonder and excitement. The seasonal food celebrations also take on greater meaning: a Christmas pudding, an Easter lamb, the first tomatoes in late summer all take on a sense of celebration.

What are your favorite seasonal foodways?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Time Traveling

I'm a member of an organization called the American Long Rifle Association. This was the group that got me started in serious living history about twenty years ago. The group focuses primarily on re-enactment of colonial-era backwoods characters, such as Daniel Boone's cohorts. The emphasis is primarily on flintlock rifles and walking the woods in moccasins. I think they define their period as being 1750-1810.

This past weekend a few of the crew got together at a beautiful (though mismanaged)historical site in Ogden called Fort Buenaventura. We sat around and shot target matches, told stories and ate good food. And slept out in the cold. Of course I was mostly interested in the food. I made a Dutch oven filled with bratwurst and sauerkraut using my kraut I just bottled from this year. It was delicious!

I also got to try a traditional fabric dye. A friend named Kevin had prepared a kettle with walnut hulls, and I dyed my woolen hunting frock to a dark brown.

I also attended a workshop by a friend of mine, Wendell. He demonstrated some historic approaches to preserved food. One dish he demonstrated was a chowder made with salt cod. From previous posts you may remember a discussion here about salt cod used in Salt Lake City in the 1850s, notably at the table of Brigham Young. At any rate, Wendell showed how to freshen the salted cod, and he then prepared the chowder using hard tack or ship's bread for the thickening. It was delicious.

Wendell also demonstrated "potted beef." He first marinated a beef roast in vinegar overnight. Then he salted it well. Then Wendell slow-roasted the beef. Once it was fork-tender, he cut it into small bite-sized pieces and packed it in a crock. Leaving a little head room on the crock, Wendell filled the voids with melted salted butter, and added an additional inch of butter to seal it. The crock was then stored in "a cool place" for a couple of months. We opened it for a taste, and the beef was sweet and succulent with no hint of rot or decay.

At the end of the day we all pitched in for a pot-luck meal. I had baked the day before so I put a couple of loaves in. Here are some pictures of us enjoying the meal together.

I love my friends in the ALRA.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Emily Barnes, my favorite pioneer foodie, noted that her father William Stewart took hams to the Great Salt Lake to be salted for preservation. She grew up in what we might call West Kaysville today, in the 1850s.

So I thought I should try gathering salt at the Great Salt Lake myself. I tried this endeavor once ten years ago (or so) with a group of friends. We went to Antelope Island and built a fire near the lake shore. We had two large kettles in which we boiled the lake water to reduce it to salt. We worked for several hours, and came up with about two pounds to split between six or eight of us. I didn't think it was a striking success.

The Great Salt Lake is salty because it has no outflow. The Bear, Weber and Jordan Rivers flow into the lake on it's eastern shores, as well as numerous smaller tributaries from the canyons along the Wasatch Front. These streams all carry diverse minerals to the lake, but primarily salt.

Naturally the salinity of the lake is lowest where these freshwater streams feed into the lake. Salinity levels along the Wasatch Front tend to hover around 5%, fluctuating with seasonal run-off and drought cycles. When drought conditions are in effect, salinity is considerably higher. When spring run-off hits the lake, salinity drops.

The Great Salt Lake has been impacted by human inventions in the 20th century. Artificial divisions in the lake seperate the freshwater inlets from the north arm of the lake. The Antelope Island causeway and UPRR causeway both prevent free interchange of the lake's waters, causing a dramatic difference in salinity levels in various parts of the lake. In the north arm of the lake, salinity levels reach more than 20%.

Last week I thought that if I were to gather salt, I ought to go to that 20%. Wife, friends and I drove up to the north end of the lake to see the Spiral Jetty. This modern art installation is world famous. Black volcanic rock marks the shoreline of the lake. In the 1970s artist Robert Smithson used tons of this volcanic rock to make a jetty out into the lake, in the shape of a spiral. It's dimensions are enormous, running 1500 feet long. Contrasted against the white salt plains it is impressive.

To get there we drove first to the Golden Spike National Monument, west of Brigham City, and then carried on west on a dirt road for about twelve miles. The road is easily traversible in a road-worthy sedan, but the last quarter-mile is treacherous and should be walked.

Once on the salt plains we realized we had come somewhat unprepared. I brought a five-gallon bucket, thinking we could just scoop the salt up with our hands. Instead we found the salt was cemented in broad, flat, hard-as-rocks sheets. This salt was also often covered in tiny brine flies or their carcasses, and often came with particles of oolitic sand included. When we tried scooping with our hands, we came away with cuts from the sharp edges. Thereafter salt continued to sting these cuts.

Our best success was in going out into the shallow water. There, the salt formed in large, blocky halite crystals. The water kept the salt somewhat softer and we found we could break these crystals off. This required dipping our scarred, bloody hands into the salt water. Ouch! We ended up gathering about three pounds of it.

Today, here at home, we're bottling the sauerkraut. Some of the bottles need just a little more brine, so we mixed up extra using 2Tbs. salt from the lake with 1 quart water. This just covers the kraut in the bottles. The nice thing about this lake salt is that it doesn't come with iodine. The crystals are pure. Iodized salt tends to soften and discolor bottled preserves like kraut and pickles. The kraut turned out perfect, by the way. Last year's kraut was just a little too salty, so we were more careful in measuring this time.

Salt. Who'da thunk about such a fundamental food ingredient from pioneer perspective?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

An Update

I just thought I'd share an update on some of the food and publishing related projects I'm working on.

Here is a link to more photos from bake day at Heber's, including our Danish pastries.

The publisher says I should finish the edits on the manuscript by the end of October, and have the illustrations by December. I went to the Utah State Historical Society archives to find photos last week, and found quite a few. I'll post some scans next week.

The sauerkraut is finished and ready to bottle, sometime this week. The whole basement smells like kraut.

Bake day this week turned out well. My baking stone is just a little short for the baguettes but the loaves turned out better than ever. We had bruschetta for dinner with bloody ripe tomatoes from the garden. Speaking of which, the garden did very well this year. There's 200 quarts of various items on the pantry shelves: stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, peaches, pears, half a dozen varieties of jam and jelly, pickles in variety, two dozen quarts of apple pie filling, and soon sauerkraut as well.

Yesterday I picked ten bushels of apples with friends. Next week we'll crush them for cider.

So I'm curious... what sort of pioneer food projects are you working on this autumn? Do tell!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bake Day at Heber's

Well it looks like its been a week since we baked at the Kimball house in Pioneer Town. My friends Glenn, Susan and Scott helped with the work of it all. Here are some photos from the fateful day.

We started by building a fire at 8a.m. We had warmed the oven the night before, so we tried to get the blaze going as fast and hot as possible. Still, it seemed to take almost an hour before it was really crankin'.

Then, once the fire was going we started mixing a 25 lb. dough. This was the same basic dough I used when I made the big bake day previously, so I knew the proportions were alright. This is my friend Susan kneading.

By 11a.m the fire had burned down considerably and the coals were doing well.

The dough was rising nicely as well.

Around noon we scraped the coals out of the oven. Usually there is a mop of sorts to wash down the hearth so you don't leave a bunch of fine powdery ash to stick to the loaves. No mop here. The kitchen seems equipped for aesthetic purposes but not so much for functionality. Throughout the day I was wishing for all the things I had in my own kitchen, like assorted mixing bowls, knives, etc.

Once the hearth was sort-of clean we threw some pizzas in. Yeah, pizza is not especially pioneer-authentic. But the hearth was hot, so whatcha gonna do with that high heat?

These cooked in about 4-5 minutes each. Some who tasted them said it was the best pizza they'd ever had.

Also while the hearth was quite hot we baked a handful of small baguettes as a trial run. Not especially pretty. It was my first effort at using the baking peel and it took some learning. One of the baguettes landed on the hearth in a lump.

We formed some loaves next. No good photos of the bread rising in all the little rising baskets I made. I bought a bunch of wicker baskets at D.I. and then sewed muslin liners for them. It worked out rather well, though the baskets seem to be sized for a rather small loaf, about 1 lb.

As the loaves were rising (or maybe earlier, can't remember, but the fire in the oven says it was earlier) Susan whipped up a pastry dough.

She then rolled it out and laminated it with a pound of butter in layers.

By this time the hearth was cooled enough for bread. Initially the hearth was so hot that when I cast a bit of flour on it, the flour scorched immediately upon hitting the oven floor. We waited fifteen minutes or so and it cooled down enough. The first loaves to go in baked in about fifteen or twenty minutes as compared to the usual forty at home. Of course they were smaller, but still, it was a piping hot oven.

The last loaves to bake took considerably longer. The oven cooled off quite a bit. All in all we baked about two dozen loaves.

Unfortunately, no photos of the pastries. My hand for pastry isn't particularly light, and the finished products weren't especially pretty. However, they were delicious. After we were done baking we loaded up the dough trough and walked around the town giving our bread away. The management team seemed to find it especially toothsome. By the time we went home, there were only a couple of loaves left for each of us.

Good thing I'm baking again today...