What Did Pioneers Eat?

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Easily preserved foods with dense calories like bacon, flour, rice and dried corn were the staples of pioneer cuisine. Jacqueline Williams, writing for the Oregon-California Trails Association Overland Journal, described a repetitive, dull menu characterized by bacon and bread, cornmeal mush, sugar and coffee. These basics were interspersed with whatever foods were available on the trail.

Pioneers started as migrants bringing everything they would need for a new life with them. For this reason, the food brought along had to be only the basics. From-scratch cooking was typical, like soda biscuits made with flour, lard and the slightly bitter leavening agent saleratus. Lucky pioneers might have had cows and a few laying hens with them, but many animals could not produce while on the trail. Supplemental hunting and gathering was a normal part of the pioneer’s day on the trail.

Once settled, pioneers had more choices. Women planted kitchen gardens, and men planted larger crops of corn or wheat and herded cows and pigs. Berries and wild game became a less important, though still present, part of the pioneer diet. PBS’s Pioneer House shows how settlers gathered and dried fruit in the fall, then soaked it in water to make pies and other dishes during winter months. Staples like bought flour were replaced with coarser hand-ground and home-grown wheat flour. Through necessity more than anything else, pioneers invented new foods like sourdough bread and chicory coffee. At last, when general stores were established, settlers replenished old spices, sugar and other staples, incorporating them in newly discovered favorite dishes.