The late 1820s and early 1830s were a period of rapid and profound change in the Fox Valley as the area’s major roads and towns were laid out. Some of those towns grew up around the stagecoach taverns that popped up along the new roads that stretched west from Chicago like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The taverns of that era provided places for travelers to sleep as well as to partake of food and drink.
The fare available in those early inns was virtually identical to the food pioneer families ate. Pork was popular among the settlers because the hogs of the period were hardy animals, not much different from the wild boars from which they were descended. As a result of the diet they ate while rooting through the area’s groves, which included acorns, hazelnuts, and other edible items, the pork of 1830 was much leaner than than available today, and the meat was much darker than “The Other White Meat” touted in those pork industry commercials.
Beef was also enjoyed by pioneers, but it was in shorter supply than pork because cattle were more difficult and expensive to raise. They weren’t nearly as good as hogs at foraging and were relatively limited in the kinds of food they could eat.
Poultry was a favorite meat, but chickens were unable to fend for themselves and so had to be protected from the hawks, prairie wolves, coyotes, and foxes that populated the Fox Valley in fair numbers.
When it came to vegetables, the pioneers favored root crops such as potatoes, turnips, and carrots because they “kept” well in root cellars. Corn could be soaked in lye to make hominy, but it was also ground into that all-purpose food item, cornmeal, which was used in so many different ways by pioneer cooks, from cornbread to mush (both as a hot cereal and when cooled, sliced, and fried as a main meal item) to Indian pudding.
Wheat farming was never all that popular in northern Illinois—the climate didn’t favor it—but early in the pioneer era enough was grown locally to provide the makings for bread.
So sufficient food was available, but how was it prepared in the days before cook stoves? Fireplace cooking was an art as well as a skill that required quite a bit of pre-planning, organization, and proficiency. It was a skill that came second nature to the women of the period because it was what they grew up with. Most cooking was done with only one or two pots or pans, generally a long-handled cast iron skillet and a cast iron pot. Sometimes, a family had an iron Dutch oven for baking or roasting, but most baking was done in brick ovens built either as part of the fireplace installation, were free-standing outdoors, or located in a kitchen addition.
Given a couple of cast iron pans and a big fireplace, how were entire meals cooked for hungry travelers in Kendall County’s pioneer taverns? Travelers’ accounts vary, but there is a particularly good one left by a woman who stopped at dawn for breakfast at a Carlinville tavern on her way by stagecoach from St. Louis to Springfield.
The young female cook, who was admired by the travelers for her efficiency, first put a long-handled frying pan on the fire, balancing the long handle on a chair. She placed coffee beans in the pan and parched or roasted them. She then removed the beans, washed out the frying pan, and then mixed corn bread right in the pan before putting it back on the fire to bake. Meanwhile, she ground the roasted coffee beans and put the grounds in an iron pot with water, swung it over the fire and started it boiling. When the cornbread was done, she turned it out of the pan. Then she cut a chunk of bacon off a side hanging in the kitchen, sliced it, and fried it in the pan that had so far roasted the coffee beans and baked the cornbread. When the bacon was crisp, eggs were fried to order and the newly arrived guests along with those who had stayed the night all sat down to enjoy the meal.
Tavern fare, of course, varied by location. One traveler who passed through southern Michigan in 1830 reported that supper (dinner in this era referred to the noon meal) consisted of biscuits, and fried pork and venison, washed down with buttermilk. Breakfast was the same except for having cornmeal griddlecakes in place of the biscuits and a glass of cider. The entire bill for both meals—including the buttermilk and cider—was 21 cents.
Which sounds cheap, but when land was selling at $1.25 an acre, 21 cents was relatively pricey.
Here in Illinois, the deer population had been almost entirely eliminated by the Native Americans who killed them for food and for hides to trade for food, so venison was found on few menus. Prairie chickens and rabbits, however, were commonly found on the bills of fare at Illinois taverns.
The lives of pioneer travelers were not particularly comfortable, what with the danger of their stagecoach overturning at the drop of a hat, not to mention the dust, dirt, mud, summer heat, and winter cold, but the innkeepers of the period did what they could to make things easier. And while food preparation technology was crude, skillful cooks could turn out excellent meals in a remarkably short times using one or two pans and plenty of ingenuity.
Today, we take modern food prep techniques and equipment, from refrigerators to running water to efficient gas and electric ranges for granted. But it wasn’t always that way, and that it is today ought to be cause for at least a little celebration.