Weird History
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Here's What Early Pioneers Ate To Survive The Old West

Updated October 16, 2020 32.2k votes 5.1k voters 276.7k views15 items

List RulesVote up the wild western foods you can't believe people ate.

Those who trekked across the country to begin new lives in the Wild West were known for their resourcefulness, and it shows in many of the foods they ate. While pioneer cuisine may seem strange to us today, the settlers had no choice but to use what they had to survive - and they got pretty creative.

Life in the Old West was harsh, journeys were long, and settlers had no guarantees the food they packed on a wagon train would last until their final destination. They hunted local wildlife, used replacement ingredients that traveled well (such as apple cider vinegar to make a passable pie), and preserved everything they could. They also used every part of the animals they ate - head cheese, anyone? Perhaps they even polished off a meal with "scamper juice" (one of many colorful Wild West slang terms).

Much of what cowboys ate was out of necessity rather than preference, but maybe a cup of calf's foot jelly or a plate of roasted squirrel was a real treat. 

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    Calf's Foot Jelly

    Though many Americans would probably prefer to eat Jell-O today, calf's foot jelly was a popular dessert in the Old West. It was made using the feet of calves (hooves removed), eggs, sugar, lemon, and spices.

    After boiling the feet, cooks added white wine, seasonings, and egg whites. One recipe book from Virginia calls for the eggshells to be crushed and added as well.

    Are you surprised people consumed this?
  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sweet Potato Coffee

    Real coffee was scarce in the Old West, so pioneers used many coffee substitutes. Pioneers ground up everything from chicory roots to acorns to create similar beverages. One of the more creative alternatives was made with sweet potatoes - cooked, peeled, mashed, formed into patties with rye flour, then dried in an oven. After the mixture hardened, it was ground into powder and added to water.

    Sweet potatoes were not considered a great substitute for coffee, but they worked when proper supplies weren't available.

    Are you surprised people consumed this?
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    Roast Skunk

    Most of us would never consider eating skunks today, but in the Old West, pioneers had to use any food sources they could find. Skunks populate a wide variety of habitats across the United States, Canada, and Mexico (from woodlands to deserts). And while not as big as pigs or sheep, they provide an adequate amount of meat.

    One old pioneer recipe book includes instructions for roast skunk, with a critical note: remove the scent glands before cooking.

    Are you surprised people consumed this?
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    Sheep Sorrel Pie

    Sheep sorrel pie doesn't contain any mutton - it's just another example of pioneer creativity. Because lemons were scarce on the prairie, cooks used a native plant called sheep sorrel as a creative substitute when making pies.

    Shredded sheep sorrel leaves, in place of actual lemons, gave the pie a flavor close enough to the real thing when in a pinch.

    Are you surprised people consumed this?