Ways to Preserve Food on the Frontier
Food preservation developed as the American frontier pushed west, finally including canning in glass jars, but also relied on methods that predated settlement of the U.S. and some that continued long after. Perishable foods such as milk and eggs were generally used quickly and consumed much less fresh than we insist on today, and foods like cheese were ways of preserving milk for use later. The methods used to preserve meat and vegetables overlap somewhat.
Pickling most generally refers to packing vegetable material in vinegar, often with spices and salt. The acid in the vinegar partially cooks the food chemically. Thus, it not only protects against rotting, but also softens foods such as melon rinds to render them edible. It does significantly change the taste of the food, such as in the transformation of cabbage to sauerkraut.
"Pickling" can also refer to packing food in salt, but simple salting most often refers to preserving meats. In 1857, Catherine Parr Trail advised women pioneers who settled in Canada's forests to first hang the meat in a cool place "till it is stiff," then cut it up; the two whole sides of a pig could be coated with salt, packed together in a barrel, and have brine poured in to keep air from reaching the meat.
The familiar image in history books shows thin strips of meat or fillets of fish spread on racks to dry in the sun. Alternatively, they might be slow-roasted in an oven for 8 to 10 hours. Meat strips turn to jerky, which are light to carry. They can also be pulverized and mixed with fat to make pemmican. Herbs were dried by simply hanging bunches of them from the rafters. U.S. Cavalry officer Randolph Marcy advised those traveling across the prairies to new homes to similarly dry vegetables. He claimed that a piece of pressed and dried vegetable half the size of a man's hand could be boiled up to four servings "almost equal to the fresh."
While salting or drying cuts of meat or fish was meant to draw out the food's natural moisture and prevent it from rotting, smoking involves cooking the meat in a warm environment. It does take longer than preparing a meal, however. The meat may also be flavored or salted before smoking, and aromatic woods may be burned to impart extra flavor to the product.
Without refrigeration to keep fruit juices cold, it was safer to subject them to controlled fermentation. The cider referred to in historical tales, for instance, was most often hard cider. Those lucky enough to produce more milk than they could use each day similarly used naturally-occurring microorganisms to make cheese. Pioneer cooks also fermented their own vinegars for flavoring and for such uses as pickling; different sugar sources gave the vinegars different flavors.
- Encyclopedia of Food and Culture: Preserving; Daphne L. Derven; 2003
- Conner Prairie Living History Museum: "Historic Flavored Vinegars"; Michelle Evans
- "A Handbook for Overland Expeditions": Stores and Provisions; Randolph Barnes Marcy; 1869
- "The Emigrant Housekeeper's Guide to the Backwoods of Canada"; Catherine Parr Trail; 1857