Book Review: Plain But Wholesome - Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers

Here at Frontier Homestead, we thought we would, from time to time, share with you what we are reading. This month our review comes from one of our interpreters, Amy Howe. We encourage you to share with us your favorite reads as the year progresses. When faced with the question of what the pioneers ate most people immediately jump to sego lily bulbs and short rations of flour. In his book Plain but Wholesome Brock Cheney shows that, as with so many other things, it was the exceptional dietary experiences that are remembered rather than the typical.

Cheney looks at the traditions of food and food processes of the Mormon pioneers from the settling of Salt Lake City to 1869, when the transcontinental railroad reached Utah. He opens with an account of a party of Forty-niners passing through Salt Lake on July 24, 1849. They were astonished at the tables loaded with food and said they did not believe a greater variety could have been produced in that city. Even a year earlier at a harvest feast just thirteen months after arriving in the valley the menu included bread, beef, butter, cheese, cakes, pastry, sweet corn, melons and a variety of vegetables.

The book’s chapters deal with various aspects of food production, preservation, and preparation. Titles include: “Four Ounces of Flour: Food on the Trail”, “Berries, Bulbs, and Beasts: Wild Gathered Food,” and “Wetting the Whistle: Beverages Hot and Cold.” Throughout he shows how food was shaped by local availability, national origin, and religious sensibilities.

One interesting aspect is the inclusion of recipes. Some of these were handed down orally in families while others are taken from books of “receipts” published around the time looked at. When looking for the next family dinner item, consider Zwiebelcuchen, or traditional German onion cobbler.

These pioneer food traditions live on in some surprising ways. Hunting and fishing are the most obvious examples, but many families also head to the hills to carefully watched elderberry and chokecherry patches. The various community celebrations from Peach Days in the south to Onion Days in the north grew in part out of the pioneer’s harvest gatherings.

Plain but Wholesome offers an interesting and readable look at one aspect of a time in our history that is often overlooked. While there were difficult times when sego lilies and pigweed greens were the only food available, after a few years in a place food was of a surprising abundance and variety. The book can be enjoyed by local historians and food enthusiasts alike and makes a great gift, especially if you have friends who will reward you with food.