As much food as was practical was taken along on the trip: fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, cornmeal, and preserved meat. Before leaving, women would bake and dry loaves of bread. When dry the bread was lighter and longer-lasting so as to be practical for such an overland journey. Eliza McAuley describes her family's food preparations for the journey.
In the East there were to be found wild fruits and nuts and wild greens could be had. Flapjacks were the most common meal, being quick and easy with available ingredients. White flour was extremely scarce. In the early days of immigration there was plenty of hunting. In later years the domestic hog was common. Jennie Wriston tells about food availability and meal preparation on the trail.
The staple of the Western diet was corn. The nutritive value of $1 worth of corn was equal to $2.50 of wheat or $4 of potatoes. In 1862, the Nebraska Farmer published a list of thirty-three ways to cook corn. Among them were the following:
- corn-meal mush or hasty pudding
- dry corn and milk (parched corn, ground and eaten with milk)
- samp (yellow corn crushed, but not ground, and boiled the same as for hasty pudding)
- corn on the cob (green corn or roasting ears)
- dried corn
- hominy (a dish made by taking the hulls off corn with lye and boiling the kernels)
- corn cake
- apple corn-bread (corn meal and other ingredients mixed with raw apples and baked)
- corn dodgers
- pumpkin Indian loaf (a kind of corn cake made of corn meal, pumpkin, and molasses together with other ingredients)
- white pot (milk, eggs, corn meal, and sweetening)
- Indian dumpling
- corn muffins
- griddle cakes
- baked Indian pudding
- maize gruel
The other Western staple was coffee. When it could not be had alternatives were varied: parched barley, parched rye, parched wheat, okra seeds, dried carrots, and others.
Sweetening was treasured and difficult to obtain, particularly in the early part of settlement. White sugar was the most scarce. In the near West maple sugar and honey were used. In the farther West sorghum molasses was more common.
In all, the pioneer diet was monotonous and not particularly healthy. It could take several seasons to get a kitchen garden going and for the family to be settled enough to eat properly. Goods such as white sugar and white flour could be had only from the store which could be several days drive away or unreachable. As towns grew up and railroads grew out the procuring of these products would be made easier.
"I made me some tea, eat a bite, left Ollie frying some potatoes for her breakfast & Annis"
"She had roast pork with dressing, homminy, buiscuits [sic] & butter, coffee."
"The next morning we commenced unpacking; do not remember much about it; only how rich I felt when I descended into the depths of Mrs. Bright's clothes basket, where I found knives and forks, iron spoons, two nice sauce-pans, graters, baking tins, spittoons, and many other things that came in play and were useful."
"About this time came court week, the first court that had been held, after my arrival. After breakfast, as your father was starting for the court house, two miles distant, he told me he should invite Starr and Mills home to dinner, and having the addition of a Baptist minister from Maine, who had quartered himself upon us, I had the table set for eight, with ample provisions for that number. But what was my astonishment when instead of the two invited guests they kept up the cavalcade until fourteen had dismounted in front of the house. Someone had told them that they were to dine the court that day, and without waiting for an invitation they pushed on, as hungry men would instinctively do. The first thing for me was to repair to the kitchen and put Doris in the way of preparing a dish of ham and eggs. Then, in the presence of all the bar, with Doris' help I lengthened the table, and with much planning and squeezing succeeded in getting their honors around the board. The chickens, which would have been all-satisfying on my first table, dwindled into insignificance on my lengthened board. The vegetables were dealt out sparingly, but thanks to ham and eggs my distinguished guests seemed full and happy. My poor pot pudding I had made with such care and satisfaction, and the exquisite sauce, its accompaniment, was most sparingly divided, much to my mystification. There was some consolation in perceiving that some of the gentlemen had discovered the mistake of intention, and were not a little mortified at their position."
Christiana Holmes Tillson
"Ultimately, they were left behind and a halt was made for dinner. This consisted largely of food already cooked and contributed by neighbors who wished to so some last thing for the family to whom they had become greatly attached during their five year residence. To the children it appeared to be a huge picnic, and they were prepared to enjoy it to the full. To the older, steadier members of the family it was the beginning of a great adventure, with the end not in sight."
"Meals on the journey were not elaborate. Biscuits could be baked in the Dutch ovens. Corn dodgers were made only of corn meal, salt, and water and fried in salt pork fat until cooked through and browned--tastier than one would imagine from the description. Of course we had that old standby of the pioneers, the pancake or flapjack. Then there was fried pork, with now and then a jack rabbit or a prairie hen, and later plenty of meat from the game found as we progressed. I must not forget that we had milk from the cows of the herd and eggs--not many, but some--from the hen coop on the back of the wagon. Fresh vegetables had been purchased as long as farms and gardens were left behind. It must be remembered that it was before the days of canned vegetables, and potatoes and turnips were all we had."
Jennie Atcheson Wriston
"Found one good large stove which we used to cook in."
Martha S. Read
"We have a plentiful supply of provisions, including dried fruits and vegetables, also a quantity of light bread cut into slices and dried for use when it is not convenient to bake."
"Sunday, May 16th. While we were getting supper, the Pawnee chief and twelve of his braves came and expressed a desire to camp with us. Their appetites are very good and it takes quite an amount of provisions to entertain them hospitably, but some willow boughs strewn around the camp fire suffices them for a bed."
Eliza Ann McAuley