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How to Plan Your Menu After You Reach the Valley

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 23, 2008

Jean Cox, State Supervisor of Household Economics, wrote this letter regarding the pioneer diet to Dr. E.V. McCollum, nutrition specialist, Johns Hopkins University.

January 17, 1924.

Dear Mr. McCollum: –

While I think you realize how difficult it is to get any first hand information in pioneer food stories, I hesitated whether to send this 1847 pioneer food history which I obtained form Mrs. Adelia Sidwell, one of the original pioneers, who was only six years old when she came to Utah. She is eighty-two years old now and was too feeble to answer the question very specifically or tell much about disease. The most prevalent disease was what she called “Mountain Fever.”

One thing she emphasized was the almost continuous hunger and desire for sweets and fats.

She said, “We were always hungry.” The meat consumption was low. They had deer and bear meat occasionally, and when starvation stared them in the face they killed one of their precious cows, which was not in first class condition after the long journey half way across the continent. One of the interesting things she told me in this connection was that they ate almost the entire animal. They even made “soup” out of the hoofs, scalded the skin, scraped it, cut it up and cooked it with pigweeds, which was a generous article in their diet. The intestines were also cleaned and utilized in the same manner. Brains, livers, lights, hearts, kidneys, were also eaten. She told of some boy guards, when the journey across the plains was almost finished, who stole the only pair of shoes left in the company and made “soup” of them. These belonged to an old lady, but the boys’ growing stomachs did not respect ownership. They were so hungry that there was nothing left of the leather when their owner looked for her shoes the next morning.

This semi-starvation period lasted several years, as the first crops were not all successful. They raised corn before they did wheat. For several years they used cornmeal much of the time. This was coarsely ground and well cooked in an iron pot. They also had corn dodgers, or johnny cakes. When they had milk they used it generously, but for the first year or two they had very little milk or butter as almost all of the cows which had been used as oxen “went dry” when they got to the mountains. Even the corn meal was rationed. They had a little porridge and a corn dodger a day. Ten years after their arrival they had more corn and wheat than they could use.

The second year they had a few carrots and beets. The potato seed was brought from California, and for the first crop there was only enough for several hills so the potato was not a common article of diet the first few years.

For years bread was made light with saleratus which they gathered from the lower lands. They also made salt rising bread. When immigrants came from Denmark they brought the first yeast to Utah which replaced the other kinds of bread.

One source of sweet food was “Honey Dew” which was a juice or sap from the willows during certain times of the year. The branches were rinsed off in a bucket of water and the water was eagerly drunk. Mrs. Sidwell said, “It was like the manna of old,” but anything sweet would taste good to half starved children.

They made cornstalk molasses which wouldn’t be considered much of a delicacy now. Later they raised beets, which they ground, pressed and boiled down. This was rather bitter but it was sweet. Some years later cane molasses was made in several districts of the territory where the weather was warmer. Bees were not brought to Utah for some years. They used wild service berries, choke cherries, elder berries, and squaw berries from which they made “lemonade.” Red berries were dried and used in puddings in the winter. They seemed to be as hungry for acids as for sweets.

The following is her version of three grains of corn: Her mother was looking over seeds in the spring and dropped three grains. This little girl picked up the three grains, parched them on the shovel, ate one, gave one to the younger brother, and divided the other one between them. She says she still remembers the taste of that parched corn.

Perhaps the above indicates the development of a diet which seems to have met nutritional requirements more fully than the typical American diet of today. There was a generous use of milk and milk products. Not much meat was eaten. Root vegetables and cabbage were used generously. In the spring they ate sego lily onions or bulbs (this is the State flower now); different kinds of greens were used. Water cress, pepper cress, and green onions were used early in the spring. Fruit raising was developed; wild berries gathered and dried were used quite abundantly. Sorghum molasses and honey were used quite generously. Whole grains were milled locally, and little was removed except the bran, until about 1880. Cracked wheat and grits varied the cornmeal mush.

Mrs. Sidwell has always been an outdoor woman. This may also be of interest to you. In spite of the starvation period and interim of meager diet, Mrs. Sidwell is a large, finely developed woman who has had eight children, all of whom are living now. She usually played the leading part in home dramatics in Shakespearian productions. In fact, she could make the average college professor uncomfortable with her knowledge of Shakespeare, the Bible, and general history. She has written some bits of local history which, according to Professor Marshall at the University of Utah, have more literary merit than anything else written in the state.

Although she is from my home town, except for one or two recent illnesses, I do not remember her being ill. Several of her grandchildren are very clever musicians.

Jean Cox.



8 Comments »

  1. Ardis, thank you so much for posting these tidbits. I am amazed, educated, and entertained by your posts.

    When my grandmother was a girl (she was born in 1926), she would go gather chokecherries for her mother. She knew where all the watercress and sego bulbs were likely to be found. It’s interesting to see how some of the menu items didn’t change even two generations after the “lean” time, after the railroad, after cultivated fruit was readily available in the valleys.

    Of course, my mother never learned to make chokecherry jelly, and has never eaten a sego lily bulb. So just one more generation (in my family at least) erased that. But she still knows how to find watercress.

    Comment by Keryn — July 23, 2008 @ 8:51 am

  2. Keryn, that’s wonderful. My mom did try both chokecherry and elderberry jelly one year because we were living in a wild place where they grew — I remember loving the flavor of the chokecherry, but not the elderberry. Thank heavens it was just an adventure for us to try that and not our family’s only source of fruit!

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2008 @ 9:13 am

  3. I love chokecherry jelly and syrup! My folks use to gather wild chokecherries when we lived in Utah, and then one year, my sister in law gave us a sack of pretty moldy chokecherries, too far gone to use for syrup, so we threw them in the soil of our back yard in Kaysville. It took a few years, but we then had a pretty good size chokecherry bush in our yard, enough for my wife to put up a couple doxen pints of chokecherry jelly and syrup each year. Leaving that chokecherry bush behind when we moved to Washington was one of the hardest things we did.

    I think we forget how hardscrabble the pioneers had it those first several years in Utah. They got there too late in 1847 to be able to grow much of anything, and with more people coming each year, they were always behind the curve.

    Ardis, I love this blog! Best and brightest spot on the internet for me!

    Comment by kevinf — July 23, 2008 @ 9:51 am

  4. This is a fascinating correspondence, Ardis. We had elderberry jelly as a kid as well!

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 23, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  5. It is amazing how inventive and tenacious people can be. Even though I’m tempted to think that I would be too wimpy to survive under similar circumstances, I think we are just hardwired for survival. We’d do what had to be done, but I’m thinking sego lilies wouldn’t really make up for ice cream.

    Comment by Jami — July 23, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  6. …or chocolate…

    Comment by Researcher — July 23, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  7. The meagerness of food wasn’t only found among the early pioneers. Many saints who came later had sacrificed just to get here and were in debt to the PEF. Some of them never rebounded, but struggled for a long time. My great-grandfather was always poor. He was trained as a shoemaker,but his eyes went bad and he couldn’t work at that. He tried farming, but usually rented poor land with broken-down machinery. He and his two wives and families lived in Petersboro, Utah, in Cache County for three years during the early 1880s. All of the children talk of that near starvation period of their lives, living on greens and weeds and little else. One of my grand-uncles said that at the age of seven, his job every day was to go fishing and hunt jack rabbits so they could have some meat to go with the greens.

    Comment by Maurine — July 23, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  8. I never had chokeberries, but fresh blackberries and blackberry jam . . . I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 8:17 am

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