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Frontier Women in 1816 Indiana


Part II – Cooking

There can be no argument that the bulk of the household chores on the frontier was the domain of the women and chief among these was the preparation of food. All food was either grown, raised or hunted. When the family first arrived, often the only food would be wild game, which at the time was plentiful. When the corn crop came in, this was supplemented with cornbread and hominy. Later, from carefully hoarded seeds, a garden would be put in supplying the family with beans, pumpkins, potatoes and other vegetables. All food was preserved by drying as there was no method of canning. Green corn was grated for hoecakes. A grater was made by punching holes in a worn out tin bucket. Meat was cured by smoking it. Before the corn crop came in, a makeshift bread was made by grinding acorns, which had to be shelled, soaked, pounded and rinsed to remove the bitter tannins. The resulting pulp was dried and made an acceptable flour. A travelling circuit judge observed the limited diet that he was served: “Three articles of diet only, appeared on the plain walnut table, corn dodgers, boiled squirrel, and sassafras tea.”

All food was cooked either on an open hearth or a fire outside. Most families were lucky to own one cast iron kettle or skillet. If a woman was very poor, she cooked in unglazed pots of clay in which the meat grease came through, causing the pot to be surrounded in a wreath of continual flame. This was especially hazardous if the chimney was also made of sticks and daub. If a woman had been able to bring her better utensils over the rough roads to their new home, she would have had access to pot hooks, possibly on a long arm, so that she could hang more than one pot over the fire, swinging the arms at various intervals, depending how close to the heat she desired her food to be, effectively raising or lowering her cooking heat. The fire could not be allowed to go out. Matches were unheard of in this period. All fires were started with the slow tedium of flint and an iron striker or if by bad fortune, the fire was allowed to go out, by sending a child to a neighbor for a coal starter. The fire was “banked” at night to deprive it of oxygen and keep it from burning out. A fireplace was not as efficient as an enclosed stove and so used a lot of wood.

The frontier housewife may have also had a “spider,” a cast-iron device on legs designed to stand over the hot coals. When nothing else was available, a clean hoe without a handle was sufficient with which to bake johnny-cakes. This resulted in their other name: hoecakes. The frontier housewife might not have had much to choose from in the way of kitchen utensils, but she was resourceful with what she had. Trenchers and bowls were hewn of wood by her husband in the evening by firelight after the day’s work was done. Gourds also came in handy as bowls and dippers. If the family had access to a cow, there would be cream to churn into butter. This was a chore often assigned to a child. Until a mill could be built for a community, corn was ground by hand using a stone quern.

With the hard work of all the family involved, there was a bounty of food to be had. None the less, in the beginning, it was the hard work, thriftiness and ingenuity of the frontier housewife that made good use of all that was available.

— Gretchen Brown


The Indiana Home by Logan Esarey

Home Life in Early Indiana by William Frederick Vogel



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