There were hardly any stores along the Oregon Trail (or the numerous other pioneer trails) where they could pick up provisions. They had to know how to forage their own food and cook meals out of practically nothing.
Even once they were settled, the pioneers still had to be resilient. A single storm could take out half a year’s of food supplies. There wasn’t any refrigeration and even canning didn’t become common until later (which, of course, you’d need access to jars to do!).
I personally find all aspects of pioneer life fascinating: how they organized labor, how they handled medicine, how they built their homes…
But how the pioneers ate is one of the most fascinating aspects of their life. It gives you insight into how creative and hard-working they were in their endeavors to sustain their families in tough situations.
Below are some of the foods that the pioneers ate – and what we might be eating again if a disaster strikes.
Common Pioneer Foods
- Bread: The pioneers didn’t have packages of yeast. They usually made their bread with the “salt-rising” method. The bread dough was mixed in a kettle while they were traveling. Natural bacteria in the dough would make it rise. Then the dough was baked in the kettle over a campfire at night. Read more about it here.
- Cured Meat: Without refrigerators, meat was preserved either by smoke curing or salt curing. To salt cure meat, salt was rubbed into the meat. The meat was then covered with salt for about 1 month, during which time more salt was continuously added. Bacon was a particular favorite of the pioneers. More about food preservation here.
- Cornmeal, dried corn: The pioneers brought along dried corn and would grind it into meal to make cakes and bread.
- Lard: Forget fancy olive oil! The pioneers used fat from animals to cook their food. It was a staple on the trail.
- Eggs: Pioneers on the Oregon Trail did bring chickens along in crates tied to the backs of their wagons. However, it is doubtful that they laid eggs in the bumpy, stressful conditions. Eggs were mostly used in pioneer recipes once they got settled.
- Rabbits, squirrels and small game: These could be easily hunted along the way.
- Squash: Squash, such as pumpkins, don’t spoil quickly and can also be found growing in the wild. The pioneers would make mashes and cakes out of them.
- Dried fruit: To dry fruit, pioneers would lay the sliced fruit out in the sun.
- Tubers (potatoes, turnips, etc.): These were also a pioneer favorite because they lasted a long time without spoiling. Tubers could also forage easily on the frontier.
Here are some real pioneer recipes. Not all of them are bad, so give ‘em a try! Note that most pioneer recipes are made with ingredients that have long shelf lives. If you are worried about disaster preparedness and what you’d eat during a hurricane, earthquake, or other SHTF situation, check out our eBook on The Lost Ways.
Also called “sea biscuit,” hardtack was eaten by pioneers, sailors, and soldiers during the war. It is made of flour and water which are mixed together and baked for a long time in an oven. During bad times, the pioneers often had nothing to eat but hardtack dipped into coffee.
Recommended Reading: How to Make Hardtack
Pioneers brought along dried corn because it didn’t spoil. They could grind it into meal to make biscuits or “cakes.” For hoecake, mix the following ingredients and fry on skillet:
- 2 cups cornmeal
- ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tbs shortening
First, make a campfire. Once you’ve got a good amount of coals, you are ready to bake the yams (or potatoes). Cover the yams with the coals and let them bake until steam is coming out of them – about 40 minutes. Note that the yams shouldn’t be in the flames, just in the hot coals.
When the yams are done, DO NOT EAT THEM.
These yams are meant to go into your pocket to warm up your hands! This is just another cool way that pioneer mothers kept their families warm during the cold months.
Wild Lettuce is also Known as Opium Lettuce. For a good reason. While it doesn’t contain any opiates, it has similar side effects when used – it acts directly on the central nervous system (CNS) to lessen the feeling of pain, just like morphine. Watch this video and learn a quick recipe (wild lettuce extract) for the best natural painkiller. Over 23 million Patriots have already seen It. Giving you a quick, easy way to make your own life-saving painkiller, ready for when you need it. Click Here To Discover More.
Cooked Cabbage Salad
This recipe probably comes from German pioneers, who particularly loved cabbage dishes. Make in a skillet:
- 1 pint of chopped cabbage
- 1 egg, beaten
- ¼ cup vinegar
- 1 tsp butter
- Salt and pepper
If they had it, the pioneers might add some sugar and a ½ cup of fresh cream to the cabbage.
The gravy was slathered on top of vegetable pies, bread, or potatoes. It added much-needed flavor and moisture to the bland, dry food. To make it:
- Heat up a skillet with 3-4 tbsp of meat drippings
- Add 3 tbsp of flour; stir constantly while browning the flour
- Remove from heat and add 2 cups of milk; stir
- Return to heat, stir constantly until mixture is smooth and thick
- Season with salt and pepper
The pioneers didn’t waste anything. So, they used stale bread to make bread pudding.
- 2 cups cubed stale bread
- 2 cups of milk
- A ¼ cup of sugar
- 3 tbsp butter or lard
- 2 eggs
Put bread in a baking dish. In a saucepan, mix milk, sugar, and butter together. Remove from heat and whisk in eggs. Pour mixture over the bread. Make at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
The pioneers didn’t always know what foods they’d find. For example, they might come back from a foraging trip with a few wild carrots, nettles, and wild onion. These random veggies could be added to old mashed potatoes along with a beaten egg and some patties. Form them into patties and fry in drippings to make a fritter.
Butterless, Eggless, Milkless Cake
This sounds like a recipe for a health-food cake, but it is really a pioneering classic!
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup of cold water
- 1 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp cloves
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 2 tbsp of hot water
- 2 cups flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
To make, boil the first 8 ingredients (sugar through salt) together for a couple of minutes. Then add the baking soda, flour, and baking powder. Bake in a flat pan at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
The pioneers brought along cattle for milk and sometimes would butcher them. They didn’t exactly have the most tender meat! Another game wasn’t exactly tender either.
To tenderize the meat, they used this recipe:
- Mix together 1 cup of fine breadcrumbs with some salt, pepper, thyme, or other herbs
- Add enough milk to make a very thick dressing
- Spread dressing over meat.
- Roll up the meat and tie it with twine.
- Brown the meat in fat.
- Add ½ pint of water. Cover and cook until the meat is tender.
Dried corn was a staple of the pioneers. They made all sorts of things out of it, including soup.
The pioneer women would add whatever they had to the soup. For example, they might boil together with the dried corn with wild greens, potatoes, parsley, peppers, beans, eggs, and rice to make a hearty soup.
Bacon and Sourdough Pancakes
This one actually sounds good, right? It wouldn’t exactly pass modern health inspections though because the sourdough starter was made by leaving flour + water out for days. The bacteria in the air would cause it to ferment.
You can read more about how to make sourdough here.
Similar to hush puppies, these were a great side with beans or to carry around for a snack while traveling.
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 2 Tbsps. butter
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 cups of milk
- 1 tsp. baking powder
Start heating oil in a Dutch oven while you cook the cornmeal, butter, salt, sugar, and milk in a saucepan. Once it’s all mixed together, set the saucepan aside and allow to cool for five minutes, then add baking powder. Drop tablespoon-sized portions into the oil and let fry for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.
These are a bit denser than the fluffier biscuits we tend to make today, but just as delicious.
- 3 1/3 cups of flour
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 1 tsp. salt
With flour in a large bowl, add one tablespoon of milk at a time until the dough is stiff. In a separate small bowl, dissolve the baking soda into one tablespoon of milk, then pour into the dough and mix. Add the salt and mix again, then roll the dough out into a thin layer. Use a cookie cutter to make circles and fry in a Dutch oven or bake in a standard oven until dough is cooked all the way through and the edges are brown.
Molasses Stack Cake
This super sweet cake should totally make a comeback, especially for birthdays and special occasions!
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 egg
- 1 cup molasses
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 2 cups flour
Mix the buttermilk, shortening, egg, molasses, and baking soda, and add nutmeg and cinnamon to taste. Once fully combined, add the flour and mix until it forms a dough. Roll out the dough and use a cookie cutter to make circles, then bake on an un-greased cookie sheet.
Serve with applesauce between the layers and top with more molasses.
How to Make Pemmican The Ultimate Survival Food
Invented by the natives of North America, Pemmican was used by Indian scouts as well as early western explorers. These people spent a great deal of time on the go and depended on having portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling foods that would last for long periods of time without refrigeration.
Winter Red Flannel Hash
This was often made with leftover corned beef that wasn’t enough for a meal on its own.
- 1 1/2 cups chopped corned beef
- 1 1/2 cups chopped cooked beets
- 1 chopped medium onion
- 4 cups chopped, cooked potatoes
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and heat in an oiled skillet until the bottom is browned and forms a crust. If it’s dry, you can add a little beef broth for moisture.
1876 Cottage Cheese
Folks back in the day found the perfect use for milk that was about to go totally bad so it didn’t go to waste.
- Heavy cream
Let the milk clabber, or sour and curdle slightly, and skim the cream off the top. Place the clabbered milk over very low heat and cut into chunks. Use a colander to press out the whey and wipe it away. When the clabbered milk is firm, rinse with cold water and squeeze out the liquid while forming it into a ball. Crumble into a bowl and add thick cream.
This protein-rich dish was a staple for fireside meals that kept you full for long rides.
- 16 oz. dry pinto beans
- 9 cups of water
- 2 large chopped onions
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder, or 2 cloves sliced garlic
- 1/4 tsp. pepper
- 1 Tbsp. brown sugar or molasses
Wash the beans and boil them in six cups of water for five minutes, then turn the heat off and let them sit for an hour. Add three more cups of water and bring to a boil again, then add the rest of the ingredients — saving the sugar or molasses for last and adding more if you have a sweeter tooth. Let it cook for an hour before serving.
Since it was obviously difficult to keep fresh meat while traveling, it was often cured into jerky that could be used in various dishes.
- Chopped jerky
- Fat or grease
There are no measurements for this as it depends on how much gravy you’d like or ingredients available. Fry the jerky in a skillet with fat or grease, then remove from heat and add flour, milk, salt, and pepper and stir until thick.
Norwegian Fruit Soup
Scandinavian settlers shared this spin on tapioca pudding when they arrived during the 1800s.
1 cup of water
1 Tbsp. dried currants
1 Tbsp. raisins
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. quick-cooking tapioca
Place water in a pot over heat and cook prunes, currants, raisins, and cinnamon until tender. Then add the sugar, vinegar, and tapioca and bring to a full boil before removing from heat. Remove the cinnamon stick before serving.
Settlers from Wales brought this popular pioneer bread over the pond with them in 1856.
- 1 yeast cake
- 1/4 cup lukewarm water
- 9 cups flour
- 2 cups shortening
- 1 lb. raisins
- 1 lb. dried currants
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 3 halves candied lemon peel
- 1 Tbsp. nutmeg
- 1 Tbsp. salt
- 3 cups warm water
Mix the yeast in the lukewarm water to soften, then mix the shortening and flour. Add the rest of your ingredients, including the yeast but not the warm water yet. Once it has been fully mixed together, add the warm water. Let the dough rise overnight, form into loaves, and allow to rise for another couple of hours. Bake at 350 °F for an hour and a half.
Velvet Chicken Soup
You may love chicken soup, but this “velvet” version was a pioneer favorite.
3 to 4 lbs. chicken
3 qts. water
1 Tbsp. salt
1 small chopped onion
2 Tbsps. chopped celery
2 cups rich milk or cream
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. butter
2 well-beaten eggs
Clean the chicken and cut into chunky pieces. Put in a pot with the water and a pinch of salt, then bring to a boil and allow to simmer until the chicken is tender. Remove from the pot and separate the meat from the bones, saving it for other dishes.
Place the bones back into the pot and add the peppercorns, onions, and celery. Simmer until it has boiled down to about a quart of stock then strain. Add the milk or cream and bring to a boil again. Mix the cornstarch with cold water and add to the pot, followed by the butter. In a separate bowl, pour one cup of the stock over well-beaten eggs, then pour that mixture back into the stock and allow to cook for two minutes while stirring constantly.
Did we miss any recipes from back in the day that you’ve tried? Let us know below and be sure to SHARE with your friends!
Also, I highly recommend this book to everyone. 300 pages, color, paperback. The Lost Book of Remedies is helping Americans achieve medical self-sufficiency even in the darkest times using the time-tested methods of our grandparents without spending lots of money on toxic drugs and without side effects. A great asset when doctors and hospitals won’t be available anymore. You may not be Claude Davis, but you can make use of his procedures and techniques to increase your chances of survival!