Biscuits And Squirrel Stew
By Jeanne Marie Leach
We all know about the wagon trains and the Oregon Trail of the Nineteenth Century. Hundreds of thousands of easterners left behind many luxuries in search of a new life, and along the way many more luxuries as well as some necessities also had to be tossed out of the wagons in order for them to make it across the hills. Thus, the frontier became littered with things from books to pianos to boxes of silverware to cook stoves.
They lived out of their covered wagons, and camped each night, cooking their meals over an open fire or simply eating cold beans and jerky. Cast-iron skillets and iron pots became their most prized possessions. Cooking as they had known it became obsolete.
Back in the east, food was readily available. In the west, this became people’s biggest challenge, and everyone had to learn new ways to get their food and innovative methods to prepare meals. At first, everyone started out the same way – cooking over a campfire.
Wherever trees were scarce, dried dung became a big source of cooking fuel. When this supply ran out, they then gleaned dried grasses and straw and bound it into tight bundles for burning. Fireplace cooking had been used by the earliest Americans, and now once again became a necessity to the earliest westerners. Metal grates held skillets and pots high above the fire to prevent burning. Iron swing arms gave the cook the ability to move a pot in and out of the fireplace without having to reach into the fire. Wild game roasted on spits, turned slowly by hand. Whatever they cooked was limited only by their imaginations and ability to hunt, gather and plant.
With the railroads came the ability to haul heavier equipment, and thousands of cook stoves meandered their way across the prairie land. Farther west in the great Oregon Territory, trees grew abundantly, and wood burning stoves now provided another challenge.
Cooks had to gain an understanding of the fine art of woodstove cooking. They used pitchy wood to build up a hot fire fast for quick heating of water or for frying, dry alder for baking, and regular fir or hemlock for sustained cooking of roasts or baked potatoes. Soundly built sheds and lean-tos, strategically placed beside or adjacent to the house, were well stocked with wood to keep the supply dry and ready for use.
Regardless of occupation or location in the west, our forefathers used their American ingenuity and attention to detail, and ate a lot of burned meals along the way, to carve out a life for themselves and their families.
In cookbooks of the mid to late nineteenth century, the recipes often made a huge number of portions. This took into account the fact that ranches, farms, mines, and lumber camps were called upon daily to serve a large number of workers. Exact temperatures and measurements often weren't used. Here are a few of the recipes that characterize the book, Cooking of The Old Dominion Prior to 1838, printed by Richmond Hotels, Inc., a sampling of the type of cookbooks people would have brought with them to the west.
One quart of flour, one heaping teaspoonful of salt, two tablespoonfuls of butter and lard mixed, enough milk to make a stiff dough (about one cup). Work the dough a little, then beat on biscuit block (or biscuit break) until it blisters; roll out to the size you wish then cut with a tin cutter; stick with a fork. Bake in a moderate oven. Serve hot or cold.
It is not beating hard that makes the biscuit nice, but the regularity of the motion. Beating hard, the old cooks say, kills the dough.
Stew ten large squirrels, or same weight in hens, until the meat leaves the bone. Remove bones and skin. Then add one quart of butter beans, three pints of tomatoes, two large onions, one quart of okra, an old ham bone, and six potatoes. Season with salt, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, one-half pound of butter, and add one quart cut corn one-half hour before finished. Boil all until it is well-done and serve hot. Takes about six hours to cook. It should be thick like a stew and not thin like a soup.
While four young chickens, cut up as for frying, and favored with "bundles of parsley and thyme," are gently stewing upon the fire, the housewife will make ready a thin batter. Take ten eggs; to these add a quart of rich milk, a quarter of a pound of melted butter, flour, pepper, and salt. When the chickens are nearly done, immerse the pieces in the batter, pour all into a deep dish and bake quickly. The remainder of the stew, after taking out the herbs, may be used as the basis for a white gravy. The flavor of the time, elusive and pungent, may intrigue your guest, but it cannot fail to please his palette.
Jeanne Marie Leach
Author * Speaker * Freelance Fiction Editor * Writing Coach
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