Historic Recipes: The Pioneer Era

by Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
8 September 2021

See pioneer-era recipes drawn from a variety of sources.

Historic recipes—and the cookbooks containing them—remain a perennial subject of interest among researchers visiting the Church History Library. In fact, we’ve previously published blog posts about recipes here, here, and here. We recently received a request to highlight pioneer-era recipes found in the Church History Department’s holdings. Thus, here are several sources of 19th-century recipes for food, drink, and folk remedies arranged in chronological order.

First, a disclaimer: we have not tested any of these recipes. We do not know if a modern palate would find these recipes tasty, merely tolerable, or outright disgusting. Additionally, some pioneer-era recipes contain harmful ingredients and are provided here for research purposes only; do not recreate them. For example, several drink recipes in the cookbooks below call for alcoholic fermentation. Moreover, medicinal recipes—which appear in pioneer-era cookbooks nearly as often as standard fare—are often dangerous and should never be consumed. In fact, Brigham Young’s herbal tea recipe, which I found while researching these cookbooks, includes an ingredient that is outright lethal. It is not featured here, for obvious reasons.

Bear in mind that many old recipes use language that is now considered archaic.1 Take, for example, units of measure. Old recipes sometimes use names of measurements that are no longer common, such as the gill/jill, which is equal to a quarter of a pint (or eight tablespoons) in the United States. Names of ingredients can vary as well. For example, fruits and vegetables often have been identified with different names over the years, reflecting the variety of fruits and vegetables available at a given time. American Cookery (below) mentions stone fruit varietals such as white bullace and damson that today are simply called plums. Even many diseases referred to in pioneer-era medicinal recipes are not known by the same names today.2 Thus, whenever possible, notes have been added to the recipes below to provide context and clarity.

Another thing to remember is that pioneer-era recipes often don’t give detailed instructions; many include a list of ingredients and little else (“Mix well”). Of course, in an era when artificial heat came primarily from burning wood or coal, specifying exact temperatures or cooking times would have been a useless concept. However, for the modern chef, this means that guesswork is inevitable when using old recipes.

Lastly, many old cookbooks are handwritten and, as such, can be hard to read. Each cookbook here will be assigned a score for its legibility, from 1 (illegible) to 10 (easy to read). Spelling and usage have been modernized.

Amelia Simmons, American Cookery: The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796)

While not a Latter-day Saint cookbook per se, this cookbook was one of the first to be printed in the nascent United States. It both reflected and influenced the culinary trends of the day and provides a broad variety of instructions for selecting, preserving, and cooking ingredients that would have been available to an 18th-century American.

Legibility: 9

There are some typos, and the typeface can be unfamiliar—with an S that looks like an F—but, all in all, it’s very easy to read for a 220-year-old document. The document linked here has been transcribed and has no legibility issues.

Sample Recipes

1. A Rice Pudding. One quarter of a pound rice, a stick of cinnamon, [add] to a quart of milk (stirred often to keep from burning) and boil quick, cool and add half a nutmeg, 4 spoons rose-water, 8 eggs; butter or puff paste a dish and pour the above composition into it, and bake one and half hour.

2. To boil all kinds of Garden Stuff. In dressing all sorts of kitchen garden herbs, take care they are clean washed; that there be no small snails, or caterpillars between the leaves; and that all coarse outer leaves, and the tops that have received any injury by the weather, be taken off; next wash them in a good deal of water, and put them into a colander to drain. Care must likewise be taken that your pot or saucepan be clean, well tinned, and free from sand, or grease.

3. To stuff and roast a Turkey, or Fowl. One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up, hang down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast. Put one third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cranberry sauce, mangoes,3 pickles or celery.

Far West store daybook, 1838 February–1840 December (MS 25616)

This daybook—or ledger—from a general store in Far West, Missouri, lists purchases made by Latter-day Saints over nearly two years. The named customers include W. W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, Edward Partridge, and other well-known early Saints. The recipes are found at the end of the book and include a mixture of dessert, condiment, drink, and medicinal offerings.

Legibility: 2

While many of the entries for the store’s transactions are decipherable with some effort, most of the recipes are very difficult to read, owing to the darkened condition of the paper, which is nearly the same shade of gray as the ink.

Sample Recipes

1. Corn[ed] Beef. Put the beef in cold water for twenty-four hours to draw out the blood. Let it drain well before putting it into the brine. Take one gallon salt to eight gallons of water, one half a pound of saltpeter,4 a quart of molasses, a pint of sugar, and [illegible] pods of sea pepper.5 Boil and skim it and when cold put it over the beef. If the we[a]ther is warm add [illegible] quart of salt to the above; if the [illegible] sours, pour it off, boil, let it cool, [illegible] over the meat again. Keep it under the brine by weight.

2. Pain Killer

Alcohol 1 qt6

Gum guaiac 1 oz7

Gum myrrh 1 oz

Gum camphor 1 oz

Cayenne pepper ½ oz

Pulverize mix, shake well, strain through a thin cloth, let stand for a week.

3. Rattle snake bite

One ounce of indigo

One ounce of soda vinegar,8 enough to dissolve [the indigo] to apply to the bite.

Sarah L. Mendenhall notebook, circa 1854–1856 (MS 6976)

Sarah Mendenhall was a pioneer-era Saint who lived in Springville, Utah. Her notebook contains recipes for various dishes and remedies of her time.

Legibility: 5

Some entries are more legible than others.

Sample Recipes

1. Pickled plums

½ peck of plums

1 quart of vinegar

3 lbs of sugar

1 ounce of cinnamon

1 ounce of cloves

Boil all together and pour over the plums and let them stand until the next day. Pour the syrup off. Boil it again and pour it over. The third day, put them all in and let them simmer, then let them stand to get cold. Then put them away in glass or stone jars.

2. Apea9 Cakes

1 lb of sugar

6 eggs, yolks and whites separate, well beaten

1½ teaspoon full of saleratus10

½ lb butter

Add flour by a small quantity.

Work all well together.

3. Recipe for making canker11 medicine

Take 2 pounds honey, strained, boiled, and skimmed.

2 oz. of copperas12 burnt red and pulverized.

4 nutmegs grated.

A teaspoonful of goldenseal13 and a small piece of borax about the size of a hazelnut

4. Recipe for making pills

1 oz of mandrake root14

1 oz of gamboge15

1 oz of nervine16

½ oz of blood root17

Mix with molasses or honey

“Old Folks Day at Liberty Park, Salt Lake City, Utah,” 1882 June (PH 1999)

Emily K. Whitworth recipe book, circa 1890–1924 (MS 31081)

This book of recipes (mostly desserts) collected by Emily Whitworth shows a collection of pioneer-era recipes collected in her native Idaho, as well as recipes from England, courtesy of her mother, a British convert to the Church.

Legibility: 7

Emily’s cursive was quite good, but the book has deteriorated some over time.

Sample Recipes

1. Sour milk chocolate cake

Dissolve 2 oz. bitter chocolate in ½ cup boiling water.

Beat 2/3 cup of butter to a cream with 1 cup of sugar & 3 well-beaten eggs.

1 cup of sour milk18 or cream

1 teaspoon soda

Beat in 2 cups flour then the chocolate & 1 teaspoon vanilla

2. Rocks19

1½ cup brown sugar

1 cup butter

½ cup water

1 cup chopped nuts

1½ cup raisins

1 cup currants

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 oz mace

½ oz cloves

3 eggs

3. Corn fritters

1 can corn

1 cup flour

2 eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

Chop corn and add dry ingredients mixed and sifted, then add yolks of eggs beaten well until thick and fold in whites of eggs beaten stiff. Fry in hot lard.

Florence B. Pinnock, “It Will Never Be 1869—or 1969—Again,” The Improvement Era, May 1969, 92–97 (M205.1 I34 v. 1-73 1897-1970)

Articles referencing life in the pioneer era occasionally appear in older issues of Church magazines such as The Improvement Era. Part nostalgia, part admonition to remember our forebears, they sometimes feature historic recipes. Fortunately, thanks to the new ability to search the Church History Catalog for digitized Church periodicals, it’s easier than ever to browse through back issues of these magazines and search for recipes.

Legibility: 10

Sample Recipes

1. Johnny Cake

2 cups buttermilk or clabber20

2 cups cornmeal

½ cup flour

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon molasses

1 cup cracklings (crisp bits of fat after the lard had been rendered from them)

Put the soda in the sour milk or buttermilk, and while it is foaming, stir in the other ingredients. Pour into a dripper and bake in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes.

2. Horehound Candy

Boil 2 ounces of dried horehound21 in 3 cups water for 30 minutes. Strain and add 3 pounds of brown sugar; boil until sufficiently hard; pour out on flat, well-greased tins, and mark into sticks or small squares. Break into pieces when hard and crisp.

Top image: Wagon camp scene, circa 1870 (PH 493)