Cooking on the Trail
One of the many tasks women performed on the trail was cooking. Though cooking and baking was second nature to most women (the highly born women didn’t always know how to cook, as they had hired help to do that job back East), cooking on an open flame was not something the women were familiar with. Even Keturah Belknap, who had never cooked on a stove, but rather a hearth, had to learn the ins and outs of cooking on a camp fire.
Helen Carpenter, a new bride making her way west on her honeymoon, wrote: “Although there is not much to cook, the difficulty and inconvenience in doing it amounts to a great deal—so by the time one has squatted around the fire and cooked bread and bacon, and made several dozen trips to and from the wagon—washed the dishes….and gotten things ready for an early breakfast, some of the others already have their night caps on—at any rate it is time to go to bed.” (1) She also comments, “It is hurry scurry to get breakfast and put away things that necessarily had to be pulled out the last night…nooning is barely long enough to eat a cold bite—and at night all the cooking utensils and provisions are to be gotten about the camp fire, and cooking enough to last until the next night.” (2)
When the wagon train took a break from traveling, either to observe the Sabbath or to give the animals a rest, women “boiled a big mess of beans, to be warmed over for several meals,” relates Catherine Haun in her diary. (1)
Even in wind and rain, the cooking must go on. According to Amelia Stewart Knight, “(Dreary times, wet and muddy, and crowded in the tent, cold and wet, uncomfortable in the wagon. No place for the poor children [she has seven].) I have been busy cooking, roasting coffee, etc. today….” A month into the journey she writes, “Fine weather; spent this day in washing, baking, and overhauling the wagons” and the next day, “I have been cooking, and packing things away for an early start in the morning.” (2)
When food was found on the trail, it was not wasted. Eliza Ann McAuley writes “In cutting a way for the road, the boys find thickets of wild currants. There are several varieties, the black, the red and the white. The boys cut the bushes, some of them ten feet long and loaded with ripe currants, which we strip off and make into jelly, currant wine and vinegar, dried currants and currant pie.” (3)
I’ve camped out with my Girl Scout troops and we did a few campfire meals, so I know from experience how much work it is. I have to admire the women who did it day in and day out, rain or shine for five to six months at a time!
(1) WOMEN’S DIARES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY by Lillian Schlissel
(2) PLAINS WOMEN: Women in the American West by Paula Bartley and Cathy Loxton
(3) COVERED WAGON WOMEN: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails, 1852 by Kenneth L. Holmes
This post first appeared on Sweethearts of the West blog on July 14, 2010.
copyright© 2010 Anna Kathryn Lanier
Note from Ginger: Anna K. has a wonderful blog of her own. I invite you to visit her...and I'm not really crying because no one ever invited me to be a Sweetheart of the West. *lol* There are some awesome authors there. Check it out.