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Food in the First Decade of 20th Century

The end-of-year holidays are near, a good time for pie. High in the Sierra Nevada, however, summers are short and hot while winters are long and freezing. Not much time for vegetables and fruit to ripen. Fortunately the train goes through the town of Truckee at the turn of the century and freight is the main load by which the railroad makes most of its fortune. Thus staples are delivered for Mr. Titus, the grocer in The House on Harrigan’s Hill, so that even poor families like the Edwards can sustain a boarding house in the town.

Dolly, the mother, is a good cook, able to put together meals that men of the time enjoyed. Lots of biscuits and breads, potatoes, meat, stew, always dessert, and coffee. Though an instant coffee was developed around 1906, most boarding houses serve coffee as it had been prepared for centuries since Venice merchants traded with North Africa. When roasted beans are ground and boiled in a pot, a fragrant brown liquid is consumed all over America.

At the same time, the Edwards’ children play in all the outdoor mountain space any child loves and can always collect a few pennies to purchase sweets.

When the family moves to Harrigan’s Hill money becomes scarce. Food gathering turns into a full time practice, just like the Indians and early California settlers learned.

“… Mama’s face settled into determination. The three girls and Raleigh complained to no avail when all except Florence [the baby] dug up the dirt for a vegetable garden….Watering the garden was the worst. Someone had to go to the pump down by the barn to get water for everything….Still, as pennies disappeared, they spent most of the day scrounging food. Raleigh and Tiny scouted the woods for wild berries. Mary helped Mama search for wild onions and pulled out watercress at the creek. Minna told [Mama] about pigweed the Washo cooked like spinach….Mama called Raleigh. They returned a couple of hours later, Raleigh holding a rope attached to a Jersey cow’s neck….” p. 80

In the story, Mama’s preferred dessert dish is pie, a favored sweet or savory dish that families brought from Europe and that changed as new foods were found in America. A dessert of apple pie is a comfort food for celebration and takes the cook’s mind off other worries as Mama discovers in the novel.

“Without a word or smile, Mama peeled the skin from Mrs. O’Brien’s apples….For a minute, Mary and Tiny watched Mama slice the apples….Mama laid out the slices on the crust in the pie pan….Mama added the top crust…and Mary scooped up the apple scraps for Molly [the horse]. As Mary left the kitchen, Mama sank onto the chair. She folded her head and arms down onto the table, oblivious to the powdery flour puffing up and settling back onto the strands of dark hair detached from her bun.” p. 180

The main ingredient that is not commonly used nowadays is lard, best when rendered from a freshly butchered animal. Until the 1930’s, the pastry cook depended on lard to make a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth crust under and over the pie filling. Lard can still be purchased in some food stores.

Imagine a double crust’s ingredients: 2 cups of flour (fluffed with a sieve one hopes), 1 teaspoon of salt, ¼ cup of water, and the indispensable 2/3 cup lard. Even today, delicious crust can be made for pie with the same ingredients, except butter or shortening instead of lard. However, shortening is a no-no if the cook worries about transfats and butter is bothersome because of saturated fat.

Mix the flour and salt, cut in the lard until pea-sized pieces form, sprinkle water on the mixture, and work with fingers until it clumps into a ball. Divide the mound in half and roll one ball flat to fit an 8-9 inch pie pan. Fill with yummy berries or sliced fruit. Spoon sugar over the fruit to sweeten and produce juice. Roll out the second ball to place over the fruit. Don’t forget to pinch together the two crusts, plain or fancy as you wish. Poke holes in the crust to allow steam to release during baking.

For apple pie, layer the slices in the pan, as Mama does; sprinkle sugar and cinnamon; and then drop bits of butter over the apples—as much as the cook desires. Nowadays, recipes may call for cornstarch or other thickeners, but a good pie doesn’t need them. Just don’t skimp on the apples. I imagine Mama picked sharp, hard, but juicy, apples from her neighbors’ trees. Nowadays, I select Pippin or other green apples to make the best filling, neither mushy nor too chunky.

But, how did a woman in 1910 bake the pie? Most poor families relied on cook stoves that burned wood until the 1920’s in America, some parts of the country until mid 20th century. Hard wood gave more heat and lasted longer. Chopped into logs to keep fireplaces going, hard wood was cut into kindling and small logs for cooking on stove tops and in ovens.

Nowadays, cookbooks usually say to heat the stove to 425 degrees Fahrenheit in order to bake the crust for 15 minutes; then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees for 45 minutes or so until the fruit inside is soft and the juice bubbly.

Cook stoves in the early 1900’s rarely had thermometers. The cook felt the heat in the fire box with a hand to know if it was time to insert the pie low in the oven. If you look up how to bake with a cook stove, most cooks add kindling and small logs until the fire is very hot. Insert the pie for 15 minutes and then insert a larger log to calm the fire and let the pie bake for 45 minutes or so.

Can you imagine the kind of understanding about wood and fire which served well to bake pies and other foods for eons, using campfires, fireplaces, and wood burning cook stoves? - original post December 2012

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