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post Ways and Wisdom of the Old West

September 12th, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:30 pm

San Xavier

Victoria’s well-appointed Kitchen, as seen in Bad Day for a Bad Man

By W. St. Germain

I have heard people comment that women were ‘lucky’ in the days of the Old West. After all, they weren’t expected to hold down day jobs as well as run a home, like many modern women do. I’m someone who ‘wears many hats’ as I’m sure all of you are and I expect that a lot of us would love it if we could take some of those hats off. Or maybe not, they do come in handy to hide bad hair days don’t they? Actually, if we took some of those hats off we might have time to do something about our hair however we won’t go there. But seriously, to suggest that the women of The Old West had it easy is definitely an unfair statement. Victoria was amazing. She managed to feed her family, the staff, run a smooth home and still be the embodiment of grace and elegance. An example to us all! Especially with all that cooking.

I am someone who struggles to cook a good meal. It is an exercise that leaves me puzzled for the most part. My sons often joke about how I can discuss in detail the science behind an egg; its formation, the calcium build-up that produces the outer shell, the structure of the egg’s protein and iron atoms, how the bonding between atoms occurs and why the clear, gooey substance turns white and firm when you heat it. (In case you’re interested, it’s because heat breaks the bonds, converting it to a different structure.)

As you can imagine, armed with this sort of knowledge, I’m in demand with the social scene. I probably would’ve been quite a hit with my egg facts if I were able to attend the big HC reunion (and then I could astound you all by moving on to mushrooms!) I know eggs alright, yet it is a running joke in my home that despite my egg knowledge, I can’t actually cook an egg properly. Eggs defeat me every time and the best I can manage is to hard boil them. Even then, I’ve turned a few into tennis balls.

I have incinerated them in fry pans, poached them until they became little white and yellow thread-like objects, exploded them in microwaves – did you know that an exploded ‘nuked’ egg resembles purple popcorn and, I suspect smells like Tillie the Camel? I have committed a number of other crimes against the humble egg. I expect if there were an Egg Police, I’d be on their Most Wanted list. I finally knew when I was defeated. I just don’t ‘do eggs’. But most homes in the Old West had at least one hen and those women, Victoria included, would have done their eggs justice. I bet Victoria even whipped up the perfect soufflé in her spare moments. It wouldn’t surprise me.

I have often marveled at the women of the past being able to feed their families at all. How did they cook such hearty meals without microwaves, convection ovens, fat trimming grills – without electricity! When Mano made one of his ‘Victoria’s Cooking’ jokes in a recent episode (don’t you love it when they have those quibbles!) it got me wondering about what she, and the women like her, must have done in their kitchens. What little handy hints did they pass down from generation to generation to make life easier? My original aim for this piece was to give you lots of recipes and helpful hints from HC’s time.

So I started investigating… and soon discovered that a single recipe would be quite sufficient for now!

Without fridges, the need to preserve foods was important. The idea of pickling and preserving interests me. The people who invented it, probably women, were brilliant. At least the day’s work provides jams and relishes for a year or so. This justifies the time and effort spent with preparation. You’ve got to wonder how many preserved foods went bad before they got it down to a science. There’s also the question of how many people who ate them got sick, too. But succeed they did. Those women may not have had letters after their names but they sure deserved them.

I decided to dig out some old fashioned recipes and helpful hints that Victoria and her contemporaries might’ve used in case some of you wanted to try one out. I suspect by her calm demeanor and beautiful home that Victoria knew many. In the recipe below, I’ve tried converting the measurements the best I could but whatever you do, don’t spend a lot of money on the ingredients in case it’s not perfect. You should see what I had to work with. These women definitely learned from previous example. My personal favorite cooking instructions were, ‘Take a quantity of fruit…’ and, ‘This recipe will require a crate of apples.’ Oh and let’s not forget, ‘Keep at it until you reach the desired texture.’

These are instructions? A quantity? Please define. A single apple? A kilo? What about the crate? How big is a crate? It’s up there with, ‘How long is piece of string?’ What about ‘the desired texture?’ Is the desired texture creamy? Grainy? Rubbery? Gluggy? Watery? That one still has me baffled. If you’ve never seen the elusive desired texture before how do you know what it is? I expect those of you who are competent at this sort of thing will be amused but that’s alright. Part of the fun of keeping the Chaparral and its characters alive is trying to live a bit of what they must have lived. I suspect I, and my family, wouldn’t have lived long with me in charge of the kitchen. If I may digress a moment here, with reference to keeping the characters alive, I’d like to say that with each newsletter, I enjoy checking out the latest photos of our readers dressed for the part. As a horse lover from way back (I have owned two Appaloosas), I’d love to see some of you with your horses.

OK, or after my July article, I should say Okay… back to The West. Here is ‘a simple’ recipe I’ve dug up for you to try – and I use the term simple loosely! I’ve peppered it with my own views which are in italics so as not to distract the serious cook. I have provided the best conversions I could make (in brackets). Descriptions like, ‘take about,’ ‘a good handful’ and ‘roughly’ make precision measurement a bit tough and for those of us who aren’t domestically gifted, downright frustrating. Good luck!

Bottling a Bumper Harvest
To make the best of a good crop of fruit, preserve that which you have not eaten raw, dried or baked into pies, using the following technique. You might wish to set aside some of the prettier dried fruits to use as Christmas tree decorations if you are dealing with an Autumn Harvest.
Don’t you just love that? Like the lady of the ranch might want to start a major preservation task after drying a ton of fruit then baking a multitude of pies from more. To throw in a bit of Christmas tree decoration-making as well is a bit much, don’t you think? By the way, what makes one shriveled piece of dried fruit prettier than the next? I must go and have a good look at some raisins.

Ingredients
About 4 ½ pounds of fruit (2 kg)
12 ½ cups of water (3 litres or 6.3 pints)
Between ½ to 1 ½ pounds of sugar. (200-500 gm or 7-17 ounces)

Sugar will vary depending on the fruit you are preserving. Sweeter fruits will use less sugar, tart fruits such as gooseberries, will use more. Use only undamaged, fresh fruit.
Use jars you have sterilized using boiling water or the oven technique. Oven technique? Which is? There they go again, assuming we know. And what do we do with the boiling water? Pour it into the jars and wait or boil the jars in it?

Peel, halve and core your fruit. Starting with about 1/3 of the water into the cooking pot and bring it to a boil. Add fruit to the boiling water for a couple of minutes then remove and plunge them into the coldest water you can provide. I expect we’d use ice water these days.

Pack your fruit in a tidy order into the jar leaving just less than an inch. Exactly what does tidy fruit look like? Can fruit behave in a disorderly fashion? While the fruit cools, bring to a rolling boil the remaining water and sugar. Boil until it becomes a syrup.

Pour the syrup over the jarred fruit until they are completely covered but do not fill the jar to the top with syrup. I’ll leave you to work that one out! Put the lids on to keep flies and dust out but do not seal until cooled. To ensure your preserves are properly sterilized and sealed, secure the lids in place then place in oven for about one hour or slightly more. I sense The Return of the Oven Technique here. If you are fortunate enough to have a very large oven, you can do this while your bread is baking.

Naturally, after drying sliced fruit, baking all those pies, making preserves and singling out pretty Christmas fruit, I’d want to be baking bread that day too.

You will note the terms of precision used above: ‘about 1/3’ is reasonable I guess, but what about ‘a couple of minutes’ – presumably 2-3 minutes or ‘the coldest water you can provide’ which really needs defining. On a hot summer day in Australia, the coldest water might be far too warm for anything. Then there’s my favorite, ‘a tidy order’. I guess ‘just under an inch’ is well, a bit less than an inch. As for making the remaining water into a syrup, a jam-making friend of mine said about 4-6 minutes. I felt like saying why not just say 5, but didn’t want to appear ungrateful for her help.

It was at this point, after converting the above, that I decided to include a single recipe this month. I’ll save the handy hints for another time. Hopefully they’ll be easier to translate. I can’t wait to see what’s in store with those. This recipe alone gave me an even greater respect for the women of the Old West. When I think that I’ve got all the labor-saving devices, you’ve got to wonder about the damage I could’ve done to eggs in those days!

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