The story of the Mormon settlers is a story of food. Author Brock Cheney delves into the eating habits of the Mormon Pioneers in his book Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers. Cheney spent time working at living historical museums like This is the Place Heritage Park, which led to an interest in the foodways of the early Mormons. Researching diaries, newspapers and recipe books, Cheney penned the fascinating book which shares some enlightening facts about the Mormon settlers.
An agrarian society, the Mormon settlers ate a variety of delectable foods utilizing the ingredients they hunted, gathered and farmed. Rabbit, fish, berries and crops of corn and wheat were mainstays of the settler’s diet. They were also very handy with their provisions. Sugar was rare and expensive, so the pioneers developed a clever recipe for a cake using readily available molasses and baking soda activated by coffee. Learning about the pioneer’s ingenuity is what makes the book so interesting.
With culinary roots in Sweden and Denmark, the settlers used their ancestral food traditions with local foods. This manifested in sophisticated ways to preserve food through pickling, salting and smoking. Fishermen who came to Utah salted trout from Utah Lake as they would have cod. Second and third generations would use these same methods and recipes.
Baking with yeast is another example of pioneer savvy cooking skills. There were specific people known as Yeast Keepers, those who would home the yeast, doling it out for trade. They also kept sourdough starters. Fermented beverages were enjoyed freely, which was a fun surprise.
Dutch ovens were prominent, expanding their culinary repertoire beyond the basic uses of a frying pan. The Dutch ovens could be used for everything from cake to bread. And we all know and treasure the story of dutch ovens carried dutifully by handcarts on the long journey to their new home.
The foods the pioneers ate could be featured on any trendy menu in Salt Lake City touting farm-to-table fare. I’m imagining something like a puree of Sego Lily bulbs, which sustained the pioneers through bleak times with roasted rabbit, a side of pickles and house-made bread and cake for dessert. All served with plenty of that famous pioneer wine.
Cheney, with a degree in literature and composition at Weber State University and an M.A. in history from Utah State University, is a remarkable writer with a passion for food and history.
Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers is published by University of Utah Press. There are about 100 recipes from the 19th century to sample. Chapters on bread, preservation, desserts and beverages keep you hungry, enthralled and flipping pages. The book also brings out the agrarian in you, inspiring garden plans and other urban homesteading. It’s a book every Utahn with an interest in history or food will want on their bookshelf.