What’s for Dinner?

deer, quail, prairie chickens

When the Green party arrived in La Salle county in 1829, they had to be self-sufficient as far as food went. There was no McDonalds down the road, nor any grocery stores in the neighborhood. So what did they do for food? How did they provide for themselves?

To begin with, there was plenty of game: deer, turkey, prairie chicken (grouse), quail, squirrel, goose, duck, and fish. One highly specialized form of hunting was bee-hunting. A good bee-hunter could find and harvest 30 bee trees a season, yielding 50 gallons of honey and 60 pounds of beeswax.

Chickens were rarely eaten, as they were too valuable as egg producers. Only when they were too old to lay did they end up in the stewpot.

They didn’t bring pigs with them, as there were plenty of feral hogs in the woods, although hunting them was dangerous. Pigs, both wild and (later) domesticated) were the main source of pork, lard (both for shortening and for lamp fuel), and cracklings – those crispy bits that could be baked into bread. They ate mostly pork, usually cured. There was fresh meat in the late fall and early winter; otherwise the meat was salted or smoked to preserve it. Jesse Green tells of how his mother salted and smoked the breasts of hundreds of the prairie chicken which he and David killed.

They had plenty of fruit: mulberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, blackberries, crab apples, pawpaw, persimmons, wild cherries, wild grapes, wild plum, ramps, and may apples were common in Illinois, although probably not all of them were found right here.

There were many varieties of nuts: beech, chestnut, hickory, walnut, hazelnut. Most nuts were fed to hogs, not consumed by people.

There was no white sugar available, so food was sweetened with honey or the sap of the sugar maple, which was collected primarily to make sugar, not syrup.

They made a coffee substitute from parched corn, ground in a coffee mill, and made tea from sage or wild sassafras.

Within a few years of their arrival they would have been growing wheat, buckwheat, corn, sweet corn, pumpkin, beans, soybeans, potatoes, apples, and peaches. They would have planted herbs, both for cooking and for their medicinal uses. Lemon balm was good to relieve feverish colds or headache; thyme tea mixed with honey was good for a sore throat, coughs, or colds; lavender was good for headaches, fainting, and dizziness.

Most kitchens would have had a few large pots, some hand-hewn wooden bowls, a dipper made from a gourd.

Most dishes were either fried in lard or simmered/boiled in water. For slow-cooked dishes of beans, greens, potatoes and other thrifty ingredients, salt pork was used for flavoring. The staples were meat, cornbread, and cornmeal mush.

The time required to start a fire in the morning and get a meal cooked meant that there was one substantial meal a day, eaten at mid-day, with leftovers for supper. Breakfast would be mush or pancakes. Cooking would be done in the fireplace.

The major difficulty was storing up enough food to last through the winter. Cabbages, onion, and turnips could be stored for a time in the root cellar, but large quantities of cucumbers, cabbage, eggs, and pigs feet were pickled to preserve them. Fruit was dried or bottled in a thick syrup. Meat was smoked, dried, or salted.

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