Archive for the ‘Food and diet’ Category

On a cold, rainy Sunday in December 1805, William Clark was dealing with sick men, hard-bargaining Indians, and spoiled elk.  However, he was quick to note in his journal that a welcome bit of novelty had crept into the dreary routine at Fort Clatsop. “We were informed day before yesterday that a whale had foundered on the coast to the S. W. near the Kil a mox [Tillamook] N. and that the greater part of the Clat Sops were gorn for the oile & blubber,” Clark wrote. “The wind proves too high for us to proceed by water to See this monster, Capt Lewis has been in readiness Since we first heard of the whale to go and see it and collect Some of its Oil, the wind has proved too high as yet for him to proceed.”

Beached blue whale carcass

Beached blue whale carcass

The sight of a whale would indeed have been a novelty. In 1805, the ascent of the New England whaling industry was still 15 years away, and Lewis and Clark would have known whales mostly as a source for lamp oil and candle wax.

One week after first hearing about the whale, Lewis and Clark got their first taste of the big fish from a couple of their own men who were employed at the Salt Camp. On January 5, 1806, Clark noted, “At 5 p. m. Willard and Wiser returned, they had not been lost as we expected.    they informd us that it was not untill the 5th day after leaveing the fort, that they Could find a Convenient place for makeing Salt; that they had at length established themselves on the Sea Coast about 15 miles S. W. from this, near the houses of Some Clat Sop & Kil a mox families; that the Indians were very friendly and had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of the whale which perished on the Coast Some distance S. E. of them.”

Willard and Wiser had brought some of the whale blubber to Fort Clatsop. Ever the epicurean, Lewis was anxious to sample the whale meat. “It was white & not unlike the fat of Poark, tho’ the texture was more spongey and somewhat coarser,” he wrote. “I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it resembled the beaver or the dog in flavor.”


“the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go”

His curiosity piqued, Clark determined “to Set out early tomorrow with two canoes & 12 men in quest of the whale or at all events to purchase from the indians a parcel of the blubber.” The next day, he picked up one additional passenger. Sacagawea had heard about the whale and was not about to be left behind. Lewis recorded, “Capt Clark set out after an early breakfast with the party in two canoes as had been concerted the last evening; Charbono and his Indian woman were also of the party; the Indian woman was very impotunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).”

By Tuesday, January 7, Clark’s party had reached the sea coast, about 35 miles from Fort Clatsop. Clark hired an Indian guide to pilot them to the location of the beached whale. On the way, he noted that “we met 14 Indians loaded with blubber.” Unfortunately, the Corps of Discovery was a johnny-come-lately to the party. When they reached the Tillamook Nation on Wednesday the 8th, the Indians were busily boiling blubber and siphoning the whale oil into a canoe. The whale itself, called E cu-la by the natives, was lying on “a very large Rock” and had been dead for more than a week. It was “nothing but a Sceleton.”

Clark estimated the skeleton’s length to be 105 feet. According to Private Whitehouse, the head was shaped “like the bow of a Vessell nearly.” Based on that description, it could have been a blue whale, the largest mammal on the planet.

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Makah Indians cutting up a whale, 1910

Finding no blubber left on the carcass, Clark’s next task was to try to strike a bargain. “We tok out a few bones and returned to the Cabins at the mouth of the Creek, and attempted to trade with thos people who I found Close and Capricious, would not trade the Smallest piece except they thought they got an advantage of the bargain,” Clark complained. Clark and the men were finally able to purchase about 300 pounds of blubber and a few gallons of whale oil. Clark wrote testily, “Finding they would not trade I Deturmined to return home with what we have.”

The next day, Clark divided the load among the men in his party and set out on the return trip to Fort Clatsop. They found it tough going until they chanced upon a party of Indians, also transporting a heavy load of blubber.  “On the Steep decent of the Mountain I overtook five men and Six womin with emence loads of the Oil and blubber of the Whale,” Clark recorded. “One of the women in the act of getting down a Steep part of the mountain her load by Some means had Sliped off her back, and She was holding the load by a Strap which was fastened to the mat bag in which it was in, in one hand and holding a bush by the other, as I was in front of my party, I endeavored to relieve this woman by takeing her load untill She Could get to a better place a little below, & to my estonishment found the load as much as I Could lift and must exceed 100 wt.” He added, “Estonishing what custom will do.”

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

Clark’s weary party returned home to Fort Clatsop on Friday, January 10 with their precious oil and whale meat. Clark reflected in his journal, “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly; and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.”

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18th-century sailors

18th-century sailors: no strangers to scurvy

During the age of exploration and long sea voyages, scurvy was a common malady among men who went for months on an unbalanced, limited diet. Scurvy is a serious disease that occurs when you have a severe lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your food. The symptoms of scurvy include weakness, fatigue, loose teeth, swollen gums, stinking breath, anemia, skin eruptions and even hemorrhages.

Vitamin C is vital for the health of connective tissues such as collagen, cartilage and bone; it is also critical to the body’s ability to absorb iron for healthy red blood cells. Though Lewis and Clark would not have known about vitamin C and its role in human health, they were certainly aware of the dangers of scurvy, and there is some evidence that they took concrete steps to prevent it during the Expedition.

Jug of vinegar

Vinegar did little to help prevent scurvy

Starting in Revolutionary times, the Continental Army included a daily dose of 4 teaspoons of vinegar in the men’s rations to help prevent scurvy among the troops. It is recorded in the journals  that William Clark obtained “750 rats. [rations] of Soap Candles & vinager” for the Corps of Discovery while at Camp River DuBois in January 1804. Since vinegar is never mentioned again in the journals, it is unknown whether the rations were handed out at Camp River DuBois, taken along on the expedition, or used for some other purpose than scurvy prevention.  In any case, the vinegar would not have helped much. Though cider vinegar is as tangy as lemon juice and would have supplied some of the acid ideally gotten through citrus fruits, it contains no vitamin C and thus would have had little practical effect in preventing scurvy.

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

A Treatise on the Scurvy by Dr. James Lind, 1753

Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, scurvy is not that easy a disease to get. It takes one to three months of complete vitamin C deprivation before the human body begins to show signs of scurvy. For much of the journey, the men were able to find fruits, vegetables, and berries along the trail that would have supplied some much-needed vitamin C. In various entries in the journals, Lewis and Clark mention the men consuming rosehips, plums, chokecherries, serviceberries, and currants. Also, some greens like cattail, lamb’s quarter, and miner’s lettuce are good sources of vitamin C and would have been available at points along the trail.

I did not know (until researching this blog) that some types of meat can also contain vitamin C. Organ meats such as kidneys and liver are sometimes rich in vitamin C, and so are some kinds of fish. So these sources would have also helped supply the much-needed vitamin in the Corps’ diet.

Nevertheless, some scholars believe that Lewis and Clark’s men may have suffered from the beginning stages of scurvy at some points along the expedition.   On May 10, 1805, while traveling through violent winds and sometimes snow in present-day Montana, Lewis wrote:  “Boils and imposthumes have been very common with the party Bratton is now unable to work with one on his hand; soar eyes continue also to be common to all of us in a greater or less degree.” Dr. E. G. Chuinard, author of Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, suggests that the “boils and imposthumes” may have been an indication of mild scurvy.

Hawthorn berries

Hawthorn berries from the Nez Perce provided desperately needed vitamin C

There can be no doubt that the Corps was badly malnourished when they emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains in September of 1805. Deep snows made the seven-day crossing of the rugged Bitterroot Range a terrible ordeal, and there was no wild game to be found. The Corps was reduced to slaughtering their horses and eating rancid “portable soup” Lewis had purchased back in Philadelphia two years before. During this time, Clark records that skin infections and boils were common among the men, and it would not have been surprising if these were a sign of scurvy. Fortunately, the Corps reached the Nez Perce villages, where the natives supplied hawthorn berries. Later on the Columbia River, they had access to fruits and fish that helped restore the men to health.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Albert Szent-Gyorgi discovered Vitamin C in 1927

While various theories about the treatment of scurvy abounded, the actual cause of the disease remained somewhat poorly understood, and scurvy continued to be a scourge of armies and navies well into the 20th century. It was not until the 1920’s that Hungarian researcher Albert Szent-Gyorgyi isolated a substance known as hexuronic acid, or vitamin C. The connection between the lack of hexuronic acid and scurvy was finally proven in 1932, by American researcher Charles Glen King of the University of Pittsburgh.  Albert Szent-Gyorgyi won the Nobel Prize for his achievement – and renamed his discovery “ascorbic acid” in honor of its antiscorbutic (anti-scurvy) properties.

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Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Historical drinking chocolate from the days of Thomas Jefferson

Now I admit that Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I was privileged enough to visit last week for the first time, might seem pretty far off the Lewis & Clark trail, and even further from the reach of the long arm of Thomas Jefferson. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you can sample a very tasty part of the world of the Sage of Monticello right here, not far from the New Mexico State Capitol.

In 1775, even before he penned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had fallen in love with chocolate, writing to fellow revolutionary John Adams that “the superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.” And considering the events that were sweeping the colonies, a good alternative to tea  was not the least of concerns for Adams and his young friend from Virginia.

As the comments indicate, chocolate in those days was consumed in the form of a beverage; the candy form of chocolate would not be invented until the 1840s. Even since they began their conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s, the Spanish had been wild about chocolate (from the Mayan word xocoatl). Conquistador Hernan Cortez reported that he was offered a drink in a golden goblet by the Aztec ruler Montezuma,who “took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold.” The Spanish exported the beverage back home and added their own innovations, such as heating it and adding milk and sugar to make it a palatable after-dinner delight.

This 18th century London chocolate house looks a bit more rowdy than your average Starbucks of today.

The Spanish soon noticed how good the chocolate made them feel and considered it both a health drink and an aphrodisiac. For almost a century the Spanish were able to keep a monopoly on cacao, guarding it as closely as the formula of Coca-Cola is today. Their chocolate drinks were so thick and rich that some of them were served with spoons to be eaten like pudding. Eventually, the secret leaked out and the drink caught on throughout Europe and eventually returned home across the pond to make it big in the colonies.

The idea of chocolate as health food might seem a little strange to us today, but not when compared with the American breakfast beverages of choice: ale, beer, and hard cider. And like a lot of health foods, it was difficult to prepare, with a long list of ingredients including expensive chocolate wafers that had to be hand-grated, milk, wine or rosewater, and sugar and spices (which also had to be grated). For ideal preparation, a special pot called a chocolate mill was needed.

Jefferson loved chocolate and served it both at Monticello and at his Philadelphia home when he was serving as the nation’s first secretary of state. In fact, exasperated by the lack of vanilla beans with which to flavor the chocolate, he once set away to Paris for the kind of pods he had enjoyed while serving as envoy to France. Jefferson was indulging in a characteristic extravagance, as vanilla was extraordinarily expensive at the time. Philadelphia taverns and chocolate houses probably flavored their chocolate instead with cinnamon.

Thomas Jefferson’s chocolate mill, nicknamed “the duck” in his family. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Also during his tenure in Philadelphia, Jefferson commissioned a local silversmith to make an amazing chocolate mill with a design based on an antique Roman pot he had viewed in the south of France. While in Europe, Jefferson had ordered a mahogany replica of the pot, and his silver design was nicknamed “the duck” by his family. A characteristically impractical Jeffersonian design, the chocolate mill was visually impressive but allowed the chocolate to get cold, unlike conventional pots. It is fun to imagine Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis discussing the westward expedition while enjoying their delicious (lukewarm) treat.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were coming of age, coffee was overtaking chocolate as the American beverage of choice.

The hot chocolate we enjoy today bears little resemblance in taste or texture to the thick, grainy beverages of Jefferson’s time. The Kakawa Chocolate Bar in Santa Fe serves authentic historical drinking chocolate, prepared with organically grown ingredients and using recipes based on historical and anthropological sources. You can order rich cups of chocolate prepared  Mesoamerican style, with no sweeteners but seasoned with flowers, chilis, agave, vanilla, and other spices. You can also try elixirs based on old Spanish, French, and Italian recipes, along with something called the “Jeffersonian,” a simple American recipe that includes chocolate, milk, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. This recipe, thinner and sweeter than the European chocolates, is considered the direct ancestor of modern hot chocolate, which is also available at Kakawa.

I only wish I lived in Santa Fe so I could try all the chocolates! I highly recommend a visit to Kakawa for anyone wishing to take a chocolate time machine back into America’s delicious past. Their chocolate mixes are also available by mail.

Kakawa Chocolate House

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Inside the recreated pantry at Fort Mandan near Washburn, North Dakota

It’s been a while since I did a “writing” type post, but I was put in mind the other day of exactly why people still turn to historical fiction and what it can be at its best. My local newspaper was heralding the return of the TV series “Mad Men” and urging readers to throw a Mad Men party with foods from the early 1960s. The only trouble was that the writer, who seemed to be a very young person, had no idea what to suggest and the article spluttered out with the mention of deviled eggs.

While I’m no big fan of Mad Men, I think the show’s popularity highlights the desire we still have to experience the world of our parents and grandparents. Food is a terrific aspect of the past to explore, and it’s a shame the writer didn’t get hold of a cookbook from the show’s era. Cookbooks, especially the practical, everyday variety, can be an amazing way to immerse yourself firsthand in the customs, technology, and values of days gone by.

Coconut pie, a Better Homes and Gardens favorite

My mom was of the Mad Men generation, and I was inspired to pull out my copy of the legendary Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I inherited from her. Continuously in print and revised since 1930, the plaid notebook has faithfully recorded America’s culinary habits for generations. I remember many of these recipes from my childhood.

From the history point of view, the jewel in the crown of Better Homes and Gardens is the “Special Meals and Foreign Cookery” section, which offers dozens of set menus for different occasions. It is here that we get our most unwavering look at the Mad Men era, from bridge parties to cocktail parties, from “For Stags at Eve” (bean and ham chowder; men like it with apple pie, we’re told) to hobo hikes (tie up your fried chicken, a waxed-paper cup of beans, and banana in a kerchief).

Every conceivable holiday is celebrated, even Washington’s Birthday, complete with lattice cherry pie. The Better Homes and Gardens book reflects a determination to have fun, to make every day special dammit, tackled with all the determination of a generation creating explosive prosperity after coming of age during a ghastly Depression and the most blood-thirsty war in history. Treasure hunt, anyone? Serve hamburgers, popcorn corsages, and hot chocolate, and in the name of God, give good prizes.

If the recipes of 50 years past seem a bit quaint, they are still recognizable things that most of us have eaten, at least at grandma’s house. Go back a century and you’ll immediately realize the truth of the saying that “the past is another country,” complete with foreign food. We recently picked up The Economy Administration Cookbook at a used book sale. This 1913 cookbook was, according to its foreword, put out to encourage Americans to return to the “simple and natural life” while fighting the “high cost of living.” The recipes were contributed by the wives and daughters of public officials in Washington, D.C. and include gems such as Democrat Cookies and Temperance Pie. Many of the dishes that appear to have been quite common were unknown to me. Timbales were a type of savory muffin or tart; apparently dasheens (taro roots) were a common starch in the American South and could be baked, boiled, stuffed, or fried. Oysters were cheap and could be used to make pigs-in-a-blanket. A breaded squash could stand in as “mock duck” and a calf’s head for “mock terrapin.”

Beef a la mode. Courtesy The Historical Dish.

There are a great many prize recipes for dishes it is almost impossible to imagine anyone wanting to eat today, from roasted squirrel to “old hare,” from escalloped brains to “kraut wickle” (a cabbage and ground beef loaf). Some of the contributed recipes are written in Negro dialect. Food was often prepared in mass quantities (one sausage recipe calls for 18 pounds of lean meat), and total pulverization is a not-uncommon method of preparation. A recipe for “beef a la mode” suggests the following:

To twenty pounds of round beef (large cuts) take two and one half pounds of suet, chopped very fine and mixed with black pepper until almost black. Mix with this one handful of whole allspice and one of whole cloves; punch holes through the meat and stuff with suet; sew up in a bag very tight, and cover well with a brine made of four gallons of water, one and one half pounds of sugar, two ounces of pulverized saltpetre and six pounds of common salt. It will be ready for use in three weeks. Boil well and when cold remove the bag and slice. Delicious relish for cold supper or lunch.

Thanks, Mrs. Henry L. Edmonds of Princeton, New Jersey! By the way, she notes that this recipe “has been used in our family for generations and is much liked by gentlemen.” (Kind of makes you think twice about that time machine fantasy, doesn’t it?)

Cookbooks imported from England were commonplace in America by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were born in the 1770s, though the first cookbook of American origin was not published until 1796, just a few years before the Expedition. This was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, and it was revolutionary (pun intended) in showcasing American ingredients. Simmons’ cookbook was the first to include recipes with cornmeal as an ingredient, with instructions for Indian pudding and hoecakes, and the first to suggest that cranberry sauce was the perfect accompaniment for turkey.

Indian pudding. Courtesy Simply Recipes.

(Interestingly, Simmons’ book contains a recipe for beef a la mode that is very similar to the one included in the Economy Administration cookbook published more than a century later, suggesting that tastes have changed more in the last century than they did in the first hundred years of American cookbook history.)

Simmons’ book also reflected the divergence in culture and technology that was carrying American cooking away from its British roots. She offers recipes and tips on using “pearlash,” or potassium carbonate, which was at the time a major American export. It seems that the vast hardwood forests of the United States afforded the raw materials for ash for use as fertilizer and lye. The ash also enabled the clever cook to make a primitive baking powder for biscuits and cakes.

Every household needed lye, a caustic agent made by repeatedly passing water through a barrel of hardwood ashes. Once you had the lye, you could use it to make soap by boiling it with fat, or you could dry it to make potash (fertilizer). The potash could be further refined into pearlash. Initially used for glassmaking, someone discovered it lightened breads and made a good quick substitute for yeast. The American embrace of practical new technology and willingness to break with old-world traditions are fully on display in Simmons’ cookbook, which remained the standard for 30 years.

There is no evidence that Lewis and Clark took a cookbook with them on the Expedition. However, the Missouri Historical Society has a collection of the recipes of Julia Hancock Clark, the wife of William Clark, that appears to be in William Clark’s handwriting. Here Clark records pudding recipes, instructions for making “orrange” preserves, a recipe for making catsup with Missouri walnuts instead of tomatoes, and “light roles.”

Apparently these household notes were edited by Robert G. Stone & David M. Hinkley in the 1990s and published as Clark’s Other Journal: William & Julia H. Clark’s Household & Homemaking Recipes, Home Remedies, & A Partial Inventory of the Families Personal Belongings as Recorded by William Clark 1820. I have never been able to find a copy of this book; if you have it and would like to sell or trade, let me know!

For more reading:

The Historical Dish (great blog)
Feeding America (historic cookbooks)
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (Google Books)
American Gingerbread Cakes (demonstrates how to use pearlash in a Simmons recipe)

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Green coffee beans

Green coffee beans

Is four thousand miles a long way to go without a cup of joe? Apparently Lewis and Clark thought so. They packed away 50 pounds of coffee beans for their cross-country expedition.

The history of coffee in the Americas is quite fascinating. Coffee was first recorded as a beverage in North America as early as 1668. During colonial times, tea and coffee were equally favored, and many taverns doubled as coffee houses. By the mid-1700’s, coffee houses were flourishing in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other colonial towns. Ironically, the Boston Tea Party Of 1773 was planned in a coffee house, the Green Dragon. As a side effect of this famous protest, in which a group of irate colonists dumped a large shipment of tea into Boston harbor to protest the British tax on tea, it became unpatriotic to drink tea, therefore giving coffee a huge boost in the American market.

Boston Tea Party, 1773

Boston Tea Party, 1773

The Dutch first started the spread of the coffee plant in Central and South America, where today it remains a dominant cash crop. (For a fascinating fictional look at the early days of the Dutch coffee trade, I recommend The Coffee Trader by fellow Texan David Liss.) The Dutch first planted coffee in its colony of Suriname in 1718, and soon established plantations in French Guyana and Brazil. By 1730, The British had also moved into the coffee business in Jamaica, where some of the most famous coffee in the world is still grown in the Blue Mountains.

Following the Revolution, coffee had not yet taken tea’s place as the primary hot beverage in America. Too expensive to drink every day, it was consumed primarily for medicinal purposes rather than as a breakfast beverage, and this is no doubt why Lewis obtained the fifty pounds of coffee for the expedition’s stores. The caffeine stimulant, then as now, helped to sharpen the mind and invigorate a tired body.

Typical London coffee house in the 18th century

Typical London coffee house in the 18th century

The method of preparing coffee in Lewis and Clark’s time would have been time-consuming. Green coffee beans were roasted over a stove or open fire, ground in a mortar and pestle or a hand mill, and then boiled with water until done. The flavor was not what we enjoy today but was still sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

Clark refers to drinking coffee only twice in the journals. On July 19, 1804, Clark writes:

afte[r] breakfast which was on a rosted Ribs of a Deer a little and a little Coffee I walked on Shore intending only to Keep up with the Boat, Soon after I got on Shore, Saw Some fresh elk Sign, which I was induced to prosue those animals by their track to the hills

Almost a year later,  on June 25, 1805, Clark again refers to coffee:

a fair worm morning, Clouded & a few drops of rain at 5 oClock A. M. fair    I feel my Self a little unwell with a looseness &c. &c.    put out the Stores to dry & Set Chabonah &c to Cook for the party against their return—he being the only man left on this Side with me    I had a little Coffee for brackfast which was to me a riarity as I had not tasted any Since last winter.

Lewis and Clark evidently doled out the coffee sparingly, because they still list it as among their supplies at Fort Clatsop in the winter of 1805-06. Then as now, coffee and its accoutrements were a known commodity in the Pacific Northwest. Lewis records in his notes about trade between Native Americans and whites that “This traffic on the part of the whites consists in vending, guns, (principally old british or American musquits) powder, balls and Shot, Copper and brass kettles, brass teakettles and coffee pots …”.  Tellingly, by this time the Corps did not consider their stale, waterlogged coffee beans a treat. On January 1, 1806, Lewis lamented their lackluster New Year’s Day feast at Fort Clatsop, stating that “at present we were content with eating our boiled Elk and wappetoe, and solacing our thirst with our only beverage pure water.”

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Blue camas flower

Blue camas flower

Much has been written about the incredible amount of meat consumed by the Corps of Discovery. The enormous physical challenge of hauling and poling the keelboat and its heavy cargo up the Missouri River dictated a high-protein diet, and Lewis and Clark’s hungry men ate up to 9 pounds of meat a day when game was plentiful and hunting conditions ideal. But man cannot live by meat alone, and Lewis and Clark made sure the occasional carbohydrate made its way onto the menu.

With yeast-based bread and the means to make it left behind with American civilization, the captains were well prepared to improvise. As the Corps traveled farther into the wilderness, their limited stores of flour and Army hardtack took a backseat to the traditional Indian “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. But when the Corps stumbled half-starved from the Rocky Mountains and onto the Weippe Prairie in September 1805, they were ready to eat anything. It was then that the Nez Perce introduced them to a new Native American staple: the camas root.

Blackbird in a field of blue camas

Blackbird in a field of blue camas

The camas root was unfamiliar to Lewis and Clark. A major food of the region, the camas plant is a type of lily that produces beautiful blue flowers in the spring and a nutritious, bulb-like root. Harvesting camas was a fun social occasion, and tribes from as far away as the Pacific coast sometimes made their way to the Weippe Prairie to participate in this event. Women, as the “gatherers” of the tribes, did all the harvesting, using digging sticks to pry the roots out of the ground. Women were also in charge of putting the roots up to last during the scarce game months of the long winter, a cause for celebration when the harvest was especially good.

Camas roots

Camas roots: look like onions, taste like pumpkin

Unfortunately, the camas root gave Lewis and Clark’s malnourished men little reason to celebrate. Though described by Sgt. Ordway as “sweet and good to the taste” – somewhat like a pumpkin – the root was hard on delicate digestions, particularly on men unaccustomed to eating much fiber. Famished after their time in the mountains, the Corps of Discovery gorged themselves on dried salmon and camas offered by the generous Nez Perce, and the result was digestive disaster.

Clark first noted his nausea on September 20, then reported the next day, “I am verry Sick to day and puke which relive me.” By September 23, Lewis and two other men had come down with the digestive malady. A short travel day to a more fixed camp the next day proved to be very difficult. “Capt Lewis Scercely able to ride on a jentle horse which was furnishd by the Chief,” Clark wrote. “Several men So unwell that they were Compelled to lie on the Side of the road for Some time others obliged to be put on horses.”

The acute suffering lasted for more than a week, during which time the men were engaged in building five canoes for the trip down the Clearwater and the Columbia. Hot weather contributed to the misery, making hunting a difficult chore. What venison the hunters were able to bring in was made into a soup to nourish the sick, while the less-sick men – no one was well – began work on the canoes.

Nez Perce woman sorting camas bulbs

Nez Perce woman sorting camas bulbs

One can only imagine what the Nez Perce must have thought of these scrawny, wretched men, laid low by vomiting, gas, and diarrhea. According to Nez Perce oral tradition, the tribal leaders were initially suspicious of the Corps of Discovery, and considered killing them and taking their arms and equipment.  However, an old woman named Watkuweis, who had been captured as a child and spent several years living with white traders in Canada, argued for leniency, begging the chiefs, “Men like these were good to me! Do them no harm!”

Canoe camp on the Weippe Prairie

Lewis and Clark's canoe camp on the Weippe Prairie

Whatever the cause, Lewis and Clark were spared, and they eventually got used to the camas root and even learned to like it. Lewis had to caution the men to obtain the root only through purchase from the Nez Perce rather than gathering it themselves, as the edible blue camas could easily be confused with the poisonous white or “death” camas, being hard to distinguish in seasons when the plants were not blooming. Lewis and Clark purchased a large supply of the camas root before packing up their canoes and beginning their journey down the Clearwater.

One further property of the camas root turned out to be a welcome and surprising treat. Dampened by the rough whitewater, part of their camas supply turned sour and fermented during their trip downriver. On October 21st, Clark recorded that Private John Collins had discovered the fermented camas and had “presented us with Some verry good beer.” It was the last alcoholic drink the Corps would taste until they returned home in the fall of 1806.

More interesting reading:

“Living in High Style:” Elk and the Corps of Discovery

Dog: It’s What’s for Dinner

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Lewis and Clark salt makers

Reanactors at the Salt Camp, Seaside, Oregon

On a wet and windy day on December 28, 1805, Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal that the Corps of Discovery had decided to set up a saltworks on the Pacific seacoast. He ordered “Jos. Fields, Bratten, Gibson to proceed to the Ocean at Some convenient place form a Camp and Commence makeing Salt with 5 of the largest Kittles, and Willard and Wiser to assist them in Carrying the Kittles to the Sea Coast.”

This was not the first time members of the Corps of Discovery had engaged in making salt. Though presumably they brought some salt along with their other supplies when they left St. Louis, the Captains were always on the lookout for good opportunities to make more. In June of 1804, William Clark noted that the Corps had “passed Saline Creek on the L. Side a large Salt Lick & Spring 9 me. up the Creek, one bushel of water will make 7 lb. of good Salt.” The next day, Clark wrote that “Capt. Lewis took four or five men & went to Some 〈Creeks〉 Licks or Springs of Salt water from two to four miles up the Creek on Rt. Side the water of those Springs are not Strong, Say from 4 to 600 Gs. of water for a Bushel of Salt.” The Corps buried some of their surplus salt along with other supplies in a cache on the Missouri River in June 1805, planning to dig it up on their return trip. By Christmas at Fort Clatsop in 1805, their supplies were completely exhausted.

Salt making kettle

"Kittle" for boiling salt water

In modern times, the processed food we eat is so laden with salt that it has actually become a problem. Excessive sodium intake is linked to a host of medical ills, ranging from obesity and renal disease to hypertension, heart attacks and strokes. But for the Corps of Discovery, a low-sodium diet was a real problem. Not getting enough salt can lead to low blood pressure, nausea, dizziness, and digestive problems.

For the Captains, the issue foremost on their minds was the taste of their food. The diet at Fort Clatsop in the winter of 1805-1806 was monotonous at best, consisting mostly of elk meat—frequently spoiled—and fish acquired from the Clatsop Indians. On Christmas Day 1805, John Ordway noted glumly in his journal, “we have nothing to eat but poore Elk meat and no Salt to Season that with.” With the pickings slim, the Captains recognized that spicing up dinner would improve morale.

In addition to serving as a food flavoring, salt was important as a food preservative. The Corps had no way to refrigerate their food—hence the abundance of spoiled elk meat—and they relied on salt to cure surplus meat and preserve dried fish for eating later. Without salt, meat spoiled in a matter of days or even hours.

Replica of a salt making cairn

Replica of a salt making cairn

Fortunately, the men found an auspicious location for their saltworks, near present-day Seaside, Oregon, close to the lodges of some Killamuck Indians. The men reported that the local Indians were friendly and that the Killamucks “had given them a considerable quantity of the blubber of a whale which perished on the coast.” As soon as they had secured enough meat to eat, the salt-makers built rock cairns and set to boiling seawater in the kettles they had brought. When the water had evaporated, they scraped the salt off the sides of the kettle. Clark noted on January 5, 1806 that the men had brought back a sample that was “excellent white & fine, but not So Strong as the rock Salt or that made in Kentucky.” Lewis waxed more rhapsodic, saying the salt was

a great treat to myself and most of the party, having not had any since the 20th ultmo.; I say most of the party, for my friend Capt. Clark declares it to be a mear matter of indifference with him whether he uses it or not; for myself I must confess I felt a considerable inconvenience from the want of it; the want of bread I consider as trivial provided, I get fat meat, for as to the species of meat I am not very particular, the flesh of the dog the horse and the wolf, having from habit become equally formiliar with any other, and I have learned to think that if the chord be sufficiently strong, which binds the soul and boddy together, it does not so much matter about the materials which compose it.

Lewis and Clark statue, Seaside, Oregon

Lewis and Clark statue, Seaside, Oregon

Unfortunately, working at the salt works proved to be tough duty. Game was scarcer than expected, and the saltmakers were sometimes reduced to bartering small trinkets and other merchandise to the Indians in return for whale meat and other game. Lewis and Clark had to send hunters to assist the saltmakers in securing enough fresh meat to eat. In addition, the output of salt was not as much as the Captains had hoped. By February, only one bushel had been produced. Lewis wrote anxiously, “with the means we have of boiling the salt water we find it a very tedious opperation, that of making salt, notwithstanding we keep the kettles boiling day and night. we calculate on three bushels lasting us from hence to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.”

The situation of the saltworks was proving to be both unhealthy and dangerous.  On February 10, Lewis recorded that “Willard arrived late in the evening from the Saltworks, had cut his knee very badly with his tommahawk. he had killed four Elk not far from the Salt works the day before yesterday, which he had butched and took a part of the meat to camp, but having cut his knee was unable to be longer ucefull at the works and had returned.    he informed us that Bratton was very unwell, and that Gibson was so sick that he could not set up or walk alone and had desired him to ask us to have him brought to the Fort.” The next morning the Captains sent a relief party to bring Gibson back to the fort, check on Bratton, and continue the salt-making operation.

On February 17, Lewis noted with some relief that “at 2 P. M. Joseph Fields arrived from the Salt works and informed us that they had about 2 Kegs of salt on hand which with what we have at this place we suppose will be sufficient to last us to our deposits of that article on the Missouri.” Lewis and Clark ordered the salt camp shut down. The 20 gallons of salt produced were secured in iron-bound kegs and set aside for the return voyage.

And finally a joke, courtesy of the great Lewis and Clark scholar Gary Moulton:
“Lewis and Clark only ever disagreed about three things: one liked dog, and the other didn’t. One liked salt, and the other didn’t. And one liked quiche, and the other didn’t.”

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A bull elk

This evening Sergt. Ordway and Wiser returned with a part of the meat which R. Fields had killed; the ballance of the party with Sergt. Gass remained in order to bring the ballance of the meat to the river at a point agreed on where the canoe is to meet them again tomorrow morning. This evening we had what I call an excellent supper it consisted of a marrowbone a piece and a brisket of boiled Elk that had the appearance of a little fat on it.    this for Fort Clatsop is living in high stile.  — Meriwether Lewis, February 7, 1806

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the mouth of the Nemaha River in July 1804, they did more than enter into modern-day Nebraska. They crossed into a different ecosystem in which they would spend most of the next two years. When most of us think of the incredible bounty of the Great Plains, the first animal that comes to mind is the buffalo. But the elk would play a far greater role in the diet and clothing of the Corps of Discovery — and eventually come close to meeting the same fate as the more glamorous bison.

An elk is an enormous animal, far larger than a deer. A bull elk weighs about 700 pounds and a female tips the scales at about 450 (by contrast, a white-tailed deer weighs about 120 pounds). During their time on the Great Plains, the Corps of Discovery killed and ate almost 300 elk, more than any other animal except deer. I’ve never tasted elk myself, but am told it has a beefy taste similar to a lean steak.

William Clark's elkskin journal. When Lewis and Clark set out over the Rocky Mountains in September 1805, they sealed up their leather-bound journals to protect them from harm. Clark fashioned this journal out of elkskin and loose pages and wrote in it until the end of the year.

Elk were even more critical to Lewis and Clark’s survival on the Pacific Coast, where they were the only large game animal around. When the Corps of Discovery held their famous vote on the location of Fort Clatsop in the fall of 1805, no consideration weighed heavier than the good elk hunting in the vicinity. Sergeant Patrick Gass recorded that the Corps brought in at least 131 elk in the course of the winter. With a conservative estimate of 120 pounds of edible meat per animal, that adds up to a whopping 15,720 pounds of meat, or over four pounds of meat per man every day.

Even so, elk hunting was hardly the carnivore’s dream that it might appear. For one thing, the longer the Corps of Discovery stayed at Fort Clatsop, the scarcer the elk became. The hunters had to range farther afield with every passing week, and drag the mammoth animals home through soggy overgrown forest. As Clark wrote, it was not unusual for the Corps to have to eat “Spoiled Elk which is extreamly disagreeable to the Smel, as well as the taste.”

These elk antlers hang at Monticello and are one of the few known surviving artifacts from the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Like so many animals, elk were no match for “market hunting,” a form of commercial exploitation of the country’s natural resources that took hold in the decades after the Civil War. Appearing in retrospect to be a form of utter madness, the system led to the extinction or near-extinction of a variety of North American animals from the passenger pigeon to the buffalo to the salmon to the elk. From a population numbering in the multimillions in Lewis & Clark’s day, the elk population in 1900 had plummeted to a mere 90,000 individuals.

Because of vigilant conservation efforts spearheaded by hunters, the elk population has rebounded to about a million, and the animals are being reintroduced around the west and in Kentucky. The ironic fact is that it was recreational hunters who cared about these animals enough to pay millions of dollars over the past century in taxes and fees, that in turn financed habitat and research that brought this great American animal back from near-extinction. In a way, I feel sad about the beautiful elk who are killed for trophies, but what have I ever done to save an elk? As hunting declines in popularity, the future of these kinds of conservation efforts is in doubt, and whether animal lovers and environmentalists will step up to pay the difference is anybody’s guess.

When you are in Lewis & Clark country, check out the Elk Country Visitor Center in Missoula, which is run by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This elegant facility resembles a giant Cabela’s ad (no surprise as they are a major sponsor). But you can have a really good time browsing and playing with fun and educational displays about elk behavior and habitat, and learn about what magnificent, tough, and confident animals they are. There is an amazing exhibit of trophy elk here. We enjoyed seeing how huge the elk are and hearing recordings of their “bugles.”

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Boudin blanc

One fact that always astonishes about the Lewis & Clark Expedition is the sheer amount of meat consumed by the men. Because of the extreme physical labor, the men consumed an average of six pounds of meat every day on the trail, keeping the hunters constantly busy. Naturally, the meat consumption was not evenly distributed. During some segments of the journey, the Corps of Discovery was near starvation. Other times, they were free to gorge their depleted bodies on all the deer, elk, and buffalo they could hold.

But even in times of plenty, they were missing something that we human beings crave in our diet: variety. Which explains why in May 1805, Toussaint Charbonneau was a pretty popular guy among the men of the Corps.

Better known to history today as “Mr. Sacagawea,” Charbonneau was a Quebecois fur trader and interpreter who had spent most of his life in present-day North Dakota among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians. By the time he met Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the winter of 1804-05, he had somehow come into the possession of two teenage wives, one of whom was the pregnant Shoshone kidnap victim, Sacagawea. Lewis & Clark realized that the young woman could be invaluable in helping befriend her people, who lived at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and help the Corps negotiate for horses and information.

A French trader and Native American woman get down, circa 1800

To gain Sacagawea’s services, they had to hire Charbonneau as an interpreter, and the couple, along with newborn Jean-Baptiste (Pompy), joined the Corps of Discovery when it head west out of Fort Mandan in April 1805. Often depicted in fiction and art as a beat-up old cuss, Charbonneau was only 46 years old at the most (which still made him the oldest member of the Corps). Apparently possessed of a certain rascally charm, he nevertheless didn’t seem to have much on the ball for all his years in the wilderness. The ever-reliable Pierre Cruzatte threatened to shoot Charbonneau after a bone-headed panic on the river placed the boats in jeopardy, and Clark (who later became fond of Charbonneau), laconically records that he “checked” the older man for striking Sacagawea.

For his part, Lewis records multiple instances of complete exasperation with Charbonneau. I can only imagine the screaming ass-chewing encapsulated by Lewis’s words, “I could not forbear from speaking to him with some asperity.” He later immortalized Charbonneau with a not-very-glowing performance appraisal: “a man of no particular merit.”

Note: Lewis's recipe starts with this important step. First, obtain a buffalo. Indians Hunting Buffalo, by Albert Bierstadt.

But one thing you have to say about Charbonneau: he may not have been smart, hard-working, handsome, or a good husband, but the man could cook — no small asset on a two-year camping trip. His most memorable dish was boudin blanc, a traditional sausage pudding. On May 9, 1805, Charbonneau’s cooking and humorous antics inspired Meriwether Lewis to recreate the recipe in a flight of gastronomic ecstasy and comic inspiration that still ranks as one of his most memorable journal passages:

I also killed one buffaloe which proved to be the best meat, it was in tolerable order; we saved the best of the meat, and from the cow I killed we saved the necessary materials for making what our wrighthand cook Charbono calls the boudin blanc. and immediately set him about preparing them for supper; this white pudding we all esteem one of the greatest delacies of the forrest, it may not be amiss therefore to give it a place.

About 6 feet of the lower extremity of the large gut of the Buffaloe is the first mosel that the cook makes love to, this he holds fast at one end with the right hand, while with the forefinger and thumb of the left he gently compresses it, and discharges what he says is not good to eat, but of which in the squel we get a moderate portion; the mustle lying underneath the shoulder blade next to the back, and filletes are next saught, these are needed up very fine with a good portion of kidney suit [suet]; to this composition is then added a just proportion of pepper and salt and a small quantity of flour.

Thus far advanced, our skilfull opporater C—o seizes his recepticle, which has never once touched the water, for that would intirely distroy the regular order of the whole procedure; you will not forget that the side you now see is that covered with a good coat of fat provided the anamal be in good order; the operator sceizes the recepticle I say, and tying it fast at one end turns it inwards and begins now with repeated evolutions of the hand and arm, and a brisk motion of the finger and thumb to put in what he says is bon pour manger; thus by stuffing and compressing he soon distends the recepticle to the utmost limmits of it’s power of expansion, and in the course of it’s longtudinal progress it drives from the other end of the recepticle a much larger portion of the [blank] than was prevously discharged by the finger and thumb of the left hand in a former part of the operation.

Thus when the sides of the recepticle are skilfully exchanged the outer for the iner, and all is compleatly filled with something good to eat, it is tyed at the other end, but not any cut off, for that would make the pattern too scant; it is then baptised in the missouri with two dips and a flirt, and bobbed into the kettle; from whence after it be well boiled it is taken and fryed with bears oil untill it becomes brown, when it is ready to esswage the pangs of a keen appetite or such as travelers in the wilderness are seldom at a loss for.—

Boudin (pronounced BOO-dan) is still one of the distinct dishes of the Franco-American culture. Today it is one of the signature dishes of south Louisiana. People in Cajun country take their boudin seriously and there are as many opinions about what makes good boudin as there are stands selling it. Many of the recipes have come down for generations.

Boudin balls. YUM.

Besides links, boudin can also be formed into balls, deep-fried, and served as an appetizer. I once had this dish at the late, great, Crazy Cajun in Seabrook, Texas and it was the best thing I ever ate. Bar none.

More great reading:

The Boudin Link

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Dr. Maturin had flung his slabs of portable soup into the sea, on the grounds that they were nothing but common glue, an imposture and a vile job.

– from The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian

portable soup

A slab of portable soup

On Saturday, September 14, 1805, Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal:

none of the hunters killed any thing except 2 or 3 pheasants; on which, without a miracle it was impossible to feed 30 hungry men and upwards, besides some Indians. So Capt. Lewis gave out some portable soup, which he had along, to be used in cases of necessity. Some of the men did not relish this soup, and agreed to kill a colt; which they immediately did, and set about roasting it; and which appeared to me to be good eating. This day we travelled 17 miles.

This entry marks the first use of “portable soup” by the Corps of Discovery. In the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis had purchased 193 pounds of portable soup from Francois Baillet, a cook at 21 North Ninth Street in Philadelphia. He paid the princely sum of $289.50 for 32 tin canisters of the stuff. Over the next two years, Lewis and his men had carried, floated, and poled the soup all the way up the Missouri River, without once being tempted to break into it. Now, however, there was indeed a “case of necessity.” The air was cold and snowy, game was increasingly scarce, and the Corps of Discovery was beginning to starve to death.

Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark

Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark, by Leandra Zim Holland (2003)

Portable soup was nothing newfangled in the early 1800s. According to Leandra Zim Holland’s Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark, methods for the reduction of meat broth had been around since the 1720’s. Meat (usually beef, veal or mutton) was boiled down into a dense gel in a series of steps that extracted the nutritious components and boiled out most bacterial contaminants. The gel was then air-dried or baked to remove what little moisture was left, leaving a dried slab of soup stock with about the same nutrition as a bouillon cube. The portable soup was intended to be combined with hot water, meat, vegetables, and spices to make a passable meal. However, the Corps of Discovery had none of these things except water made from melted snow.

On Sunday, September 15, Sergeant John Ordway wrote:

we crossed a creek a pond a little below then assended a high Mountain Some places So Steep and rockey that Some of our horses fell backwards and roled 20 or 30 feet among the rocks, but did not kill them.    we got on the ridge of the mountain and followed it.    came over several verry high knobs where the timber had been mostly blown down.    we found a small spring before we came to the highest part of the mountain where we halted and drank a little portable Soup and proceeded on to the top of the mount    found it to be abot. 10 miles from the foot to the top of sd. mount and most of the way very Steep.    we travvelled untill after dark in hopes to find water.    but could not find any.    we found Some Spots of Snow so we Camped on the top of the Mountain and melted Some Snow.    this Snow appears to lay all the year on this Mount    we drank a little portable Soup and lay down without any thing else to Satisfy our hunger.

Things would get worse before they got better.  Monday, September 16, was a bitter cold day, and the men subsisted on the portable soup for much of the day. Some later accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition claim that the soup was rancid, but there is no evidence of that in the journals. Soup preserved under such conditions could typically last from two to five years. However, it is reasonable to conclude that the soup was unsatisfying and had a disagreeable taste, as evidenced by the men’s desire to eat something, anything else. After tragically missing a shot at a rare deer in the mountains, William Clark  recorded: “men all wet cold and hungary. Killed a Second Colt which we all Suped hartily on and thought it fine meat.”  The next day he wrote: “Killed a fiew Pheasents which was not Sufficient for our Supper which compelled us to kill Something.    a coalt being the most useless part of our Stock he fell a Prey to our appetites.”

Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroots by John Clymer

Lewis and Clark in the Bitterroots by John Clymer

With game so scarce, the hated portable soup was quickly becoming their only reliable food source. Even the supply of that was dwindling with alarming rapidity. By Wednesday, September 18, Lewis recorded: “this morning we finished the remainder of our last coult.    we dined & suped on a skant proportion of portable soupe, a few canesters of which, a little bears oil and about 20 lbs. of candles form our stock of provision, the only resources being our guns & packhorses.”   In desperation, the captains decided that Clark would go on ahead with six men, and try to find food to bring back for the rest of the party. Clark’s men found a horse, killed it, and hung it up for the rest of the party to find, then pressed on searching for larger, meatier game.

On Friday, September 20, Private Joseph Whitehouse recorded glumly, “a cold frosty morning.    we eat a fiew peas & a little greece which was the verry last kind of eatables of any kind we had except a little portable Soup.” After a week on the gag-inducing gel, the men still did not relish the soup—or perhaps they simply did not want to use the very last morsel of their provisions. Lewis’s journal of September 21 reveals that the situation had become very dire. The men were exhausted and famished, and several were ill with dysentery and painful skin eruptions. Lewis wrote:

we killed a few Pheasants, and I killd a prarie woolf which together with the ballance of our horse beef and some crawfish which we obtained in the creek enabled us to make one more hearty meal, not knowing where the next was to be found.   I find myself growing weak for the want of food and most of the men complain of a similar deficiency and have fallen off very much.

Lewis and Clark with the Nez Perce

Lewis and Clark with the Nez Perce, 1805

Fortunately, Clark and his men had emerged from the dreadful, rugged mountains, encountered the Nez Perce Indians, and started back with dried fish and roots for Lewis’s starving men. The worst ordeal of the expedition, the trek over the Rocky Mountains, was over. Though it wouldn’t win any culinary awards, the portable soup had served its purpose.

Lewis and Clark had enough portable soup left over to give some to a sick Indian chief at the Chopunnish village of Broken Arm during the trip home in May 1806. Surprisingly, the patient not only survived—but actually got well.

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