If you've ever considered eating like settlers did during the 19th century, get ready for an adventure. As settlers traversed the American frontier, they resorted to eating whatever they could find that was cheap and portable, which included any critter that happened across their path. Men, women, and children from different backgrounds brought unique culinary practices and food preferences along with them, contributing to a truly fascinating cuisine.
Some surprising foods from the 1800s include animals that modern diners wouldn't consider edible, while others reveal how creative settlers got with their dishes. Many recipes mash up ingredients you'd never think could be brought together – though, there are even a few foods that you can still find today.
Settlers, mountain men, slaves, and others trying to survive on the American frontier ate any animals they could find, including squirrel, raccoon, skunk, pigeon, and porcupine. Squirrel provided a good alternative to chicken and was often served with dumplings. Settlers pan-fried squirrel and served it with gravy made from its juices, or they simply tossed the meat into a pot as part of a stew. In one cookbook from 1878, the recipe for stewed squirrel called for cooks to:
Skin them very carefully, so as not to allow the hair to touch the flesh; this can be done by cutting a slit under the throat, and as you pull it off, turn the skin over, so as to inclose the hair.
Cut the squirrel in pieces (discard the head), and lay them in cold water; put a large tablespoon of lard in a stew-pan, with an onion sliced, and tablespoon of flour; let fry until the flour is brown, then put in a pint of water, the squirrel seasoned with salt and pepper, and cook until tender.
According to Lynne Olver of the Food Timeline, squirrel meat often found it's way into Brunswick stew, a meal saved for celebratory occasions like political rallies and family reunions in 19th century Virginia. This stew also included beans, vegetables, potatoes, cream, and butter. Other regional varieties of Brunswick stew are Kentucky burgoo and Wisconsin or Minnesota booya.
Beavers were in demand on the frontier, largely due to their valuable pelts. As with other animals, settlers made sure to use all of the beaver's parts, including its tail. Beaver proved a tricky protein to prepare, however, due to glands, fat, and flesh that were particularly odorous but also full of flavor. Settlers had to cut away these portions immediately.
Sometimes people cooked beaver with baking soda to mitigate the smell. Beaver meat then got soaked in vinegar before being seasoned with salt, pepper, and other spices. Beaver was roasted and eaten on its own or mixed into stew. Settlers weren't picky when it came to their stews, living by the motto "meat was meat." Cowhands like Lee Leverett echoed this sentiment, commenting that adding wild game to meals was a way to introduce variety to their standard diet of beans, beef, and coffee.
Pigeon proved to be a versatile bird when it came to cooking. Pigeon meat could be boiled, roasted, baked, put into pies, pickled, and dried. Pigeon pie, popular during the Civil War era, called for the bird to be rubbed with salt and pepper – "inside and out" – before it was baked under puff paste with hard eggs and hame, if available.
Pigeon was regularly featured in bisques alongside other game birds, such as quail. Wild – or passenger – pigeon was such a delicacy in cities that rural areas supplied urban centers with millions of birds annually. As an added bonus, pigeon was a relatively cheap bird for poverty-stricken urban dwellers to eat.
Settlers often prepared calf brains with the animal's liver for a hot meal. Cooks washed and soaked the head before boiling it, skimming the water as needed. Then the brains were removed from the skull and soaked again. Boiled a second time, the brains were then trimmed, chopped into small pieces, and mixed with sage, salt, pepper, and other spices. The finished combination was served in melted butter.
Other cookbooks include similar recipes, though the brains themselves varied. After soaking and cleaning lamb, calf, and pig brains, the parts got blended with grease, eggs, and various seasonings. They were served with bacon.