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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Food Preparation in the 1800's--It wasn't for Sissies!

After many years of wanting a child, a good friend of mine was able to adopt a baby. She wants the boy to understand and appreciate his cultural heritage (Korean) and so she spent time learning where to purchase and how to cook some of his native meals. In the end, she realized that the women spent nearly ¾ of their day in the preparation of their food.

As I looked through cookbooks of food preparation in the 1800s, it seems that women of the American frontier did likewise. Here are a few tidbits I gathered...
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"The quality of butter depends very much upon the kind of cows. Those who give a great deal of milk, are usually small and thin. Every cow should have a tea-cup full of salt each week, and must be well fed. Green cornstalks and carrots are excellent for cows. Turnips, cabbage, and parsnips spoil the milk.

Two particulars are indispensable to success in making a good butter; the first is, that the churning be frequent so that the cream will not grow bitter, or sour; and the second is cleanliness in all implements and processes connected with it.

In hot weather it is important to keep the milk, cream, and butter as cool as possible. For this purpose, those who have no ice-house or very cool milk-room, hang their cream down a well.

After the weather gets cold, the cream rises more perfectly after allowing the milk to stand say ten or eleven hours, to set it over a furnace a while till it is warmed through, but not heated hot enough to boil. Then take it back, let it stand eleven hours longer and skim it. This secures more, and better cream.

Do not use the hand in working over the butter, as it injures it so much that a higher price is often paid for butter made without using the hand. A wooden spade made for the purpose is the proper article for working over butter." (Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, 1856)


Yellow or brownish colored eggs are mostly produced by hens of Southern breed, and the white alabaster egg, by Northern breeds. (Home Studies, 1856)

To tell good from bad; put eggs in water in a vessel with a smooth level bottom, but reject those which stand on end as bad. If eggs gurgle when shaken gently, they are “totally depraved.” (Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, 1877)

Eggs were preserved by several methods.

In lime-water ~ One pint of coarse salt, and one pint of unslacked lime, to a pailful of water. If there be too much lime, it will eat the shells from the eggs; and if there be a single egg cracked, it will spoil the whole. The yolk becomes slightly red, but I have seen eggs, thus kept, perfectly sweet and fresh at the end of three years. (The American Frugal Housewife, 1832)

Rubbed with fresh butter or dipped in liquid mutton-suet or beef suet, hung in a net, and daily turned upside down. (Home Studies, 1856)

Eggs are preserved longer by packing them close, standing them on their small ends. (Miss Beechers’s Domestic Receipt-Book, 1856)


Good flour adheres to the hand, and, when pressed, shows the imprint of the lines of the skin. Its tint is cream white. Never buy that which has a blue-white tinge. Poor flour is not adhesive, can be blown and easily, and sometimes has a dingy look, as though mixed with ashes. (Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, 1877)

It is estimated that one barrel of flour will last one person one year, which gives a rule of proportion by which to buy. (The Boston Cook Book, 1884)

Flour…of old mixed with plaster of Paris, ground bones, and potato-starch—thanks to the cheapening of pure materials, has come to content itself with alum only. (The New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, 1872)

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A girl learned as she helped at her mother’s side. A missed step, an unclean utensil, could easily end up spoiling the food and undoing hours of work. I supposed it could undo even more time if one takes into account the feeding and care of the cow or the hens. The more I learn of how difficult life was for women on the frontier, the more I appreciate my modern conveniences—especially the refrigerator and the supermarket!


Unknown said...

Fascinating Kathryne. I like history, but wouldn't want to live it.

Barbara Monajem said...

Flour mixed with ground bones? Sounds awfully Jack-and-the Beanstalk!

I cook mostly from scratch - er, at least I thought I did. I don't want to go back in history either...

Unknown said...

WoW! And I thought all the time I spend and the work I do in the kitchen cooking and baking allergy free was bad. The women back then had us beat hands down!

Ann C.

Blythe Gifford said...

It's amazing how much time and physical effort people used to have to spend just to generate food, clothing, and shelter. History is a nice place to visit. I wouldn't want to live there!

Kathryn Albright said...

Hello Ann--
Sorry it took me so long to check in! I've had quite a day!Thanks for commenting Ann. I'm right there with you when it comes to living history--although I think at times I would like the slower pace.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Barbara! Yep, I guess they added some pretty nasty stuff to things to make the item stretch. But then--I've heard that happens still today in many foods. Chickens, hot dogs, etc... Makes me want to be REAL careful! Thanks for stopping by!

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Wildheart,

Thanks for stopping by! I have several friends that must be careful how the prepare foods and what they ingest. A few are diabetic, a few are allergic to gluten and cannot have any wheat. I sometimes don't know how they keep themselves full! And you're right--the amount of time in planning, purchasing, and then preparing the food is overwhelming to me.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Blythe! Thanks for commenting! And I was sorry to miss your guest blog the other day! I did read it--just too late to comment. One of the worse things about living "back then" for me would be to not have any hot water at the touch of my hand! I love those hot showers!

Sally said...

One can get a sense of the early era of cooking if you like camping. At a weekend family reunion campout I fixed meals over a fire for 20 people for 4 days. With great planning and groceries at hand the days were spent preparing one meal, cleaning up, starting the next. I equated it to 4 days of hard labor. I daily give thanks for electricity and indoor plumbing.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Sally,
Thanks for commenting! I agree with you--camping can be hard work for the chief cook and bottle washer! I hope you were able to visit with the family and they didn't leave you to kitchen duties while they went off fishing and swimming! A family reunion is such a good time--usually!

librarypat said...

It is hard work to live the way families did 100 or even 50 years ago. I lived in the country growing up and live in the country now. I have made butter, but don't much anymore. We have a garden. I can and freeze what we can't eat right away. Fishing and hunting add a whole different type of work.

Thank Heaven we have the modern conveniences we do. Unfortunately, cooking and putting things by is becoming a lost art.

Shirley said...

Makes me really glad for all my modern conveniences, too! I am way too lazy to be a cook back then :-)

Paty Jager said...

Fun information!

Carol L. said...

Very interesting Kathryne. The frontier women were rue pioneers and had it so very hard. Of course to them it was probably second nature.I doubt I could ever live without my refrigerator or gas range and supermarkets. There weren't even any stores except in town.I'd have never lasted in he old west. :)Thank you for the info.
Carol L.

Cialis Online said...

thanks for the information, I always ask something, how was the process to make ice before the coolers was create it?.

Unknown said...