Primitive Cooking: Early Days in California.

This image (from Corbis) is actually from the Yukon gold rush.

PRIMITIVE COOKING.

Some Reminiscences of Early Days in California.
[Special Correspondence.]
BOSTON, May 5.

Of the 150,000 males who in 1849-50 were avalanched on California from all parts of the world not one in 100 could boil a potato properly.

A good bread maker easily got his $400 a month. For the first two years, cooks, blacksmiths and carpenters could make far more than lawyers. People on a pinch could get along without lawyers. They couldn’t without cooks.

Many lawyers became good cooks, and stuck to their adopted calling at $300 per month until law practice began to pay. Law didn’t begin to pay until the miners’ juries stopped hanging men for stealing. Their hangings cost the county nothing. Sometimes, it is true, they hung the wrong man, as a warning to the right one. But when the lawyers stopped cooking and got in at their legitimate work, crime became safer.

Indifferent wretches, who could stir flour and water together, fling in a handful of yeast powder and scorch this compound on a frying pan, set up for cooks and made their $200 per month. “Flapjacks” were universal. Within the first year of the raw cookery era of California hundreds of amateur cooks could flip a flapjack on a frying pan by an imperceptible turn of the wrist and flop every inch of the unbaked side squarely on the pan’s bottom. A meal of bull beefsteak, flapjacks and dried apples at the “Astor house” cost $1. The “Astor” was an old ship’s caboose moved on shore, with a brief addition in its rear. Levy, the landlord, used to hang out the sign “Potatoes to-day!” Potatoes were then a rarity. There were no eggs, nor hens to lay them. Mince pies were made of salt beef, soaked to a dead sort of freshness, dried apples and molasses. They sold at $1 each, and were not much thicker than a cake of hard bread. It was no great fete there to bite through four pies if a man could afford it. Beans were universal. In many circles they had them twenty-one times a week. Most American cooks would at first put the pork to boil at the same time as the beans and with the beans. Then they wondered why the beans were so hard. Salt hardens the bean’s heart. They found out at last that the pork should not go into the pot until about fifteen minutes before the beans come off the fire.

Beans were generally cooked out of doors in “Dutch ovens.” The beans cooked while the boys dug on their claims. This peaceful state of things lasted till the miners took to keeping hogs and developed an ambition to cover the Sierra foothills with countless herds of swine. The swine would nose around the cooking beans while the boys were away, and eventually upset the pot and devour the beans. Such depredations led to shootings, sometimes of hogs, sometimes of hog owners, or the hog owner shot the man who shot his hogs or whom he thought had shot his hogs.

Cows also were destructive. The cows would sometimes eat through our houses, of cotton drilling. I returned to my home on Swelts Bar after attending a county convention and found that a cow had eaten through one side of my house and gone out at the other, and on the way devoured all my flour and potatoes. It was indeed a wrecked ranch, for she had not been at all nice and particular while feeding at the expense of a Democratic delegate. The cattle were crazy after salt. Anything which had held salt or tasted of salt would attract legions of cows. An empty mackerel keg, which once unwisely I threw out of doors, brought down from the hills that night, I should think, about forty cows and bulls, who tramped and bellowed and gored each other all night for a lick at that keg. On another occasion they chewed up two flannel shirts and two pairs of drawers — my week’s washing left to dry on the line — for the sake of the salt in the cloth. Of course I got the clothes back, but they had been too thoroughly digested to be wearable. I met a cow one day running off with my best coat. She had chewed and partly swallowed the coat the right sleeve. I chased her and pulled the coat out of her. All this was for the sake of the salt in the coat.

Thousands of miners tried to cook a quart of dry rice at once. The power of rice to swell — and swell when it once fairly gets en rapport with hot water, is something miraculous. It would fill everything fillable in the cabin and keep up a never ceasing overflow over the pot’s rim. I found Jack Ward once in his cabin at 9 o’clock in the evening, so ladling rice from off his pot. He said he had been thus engaged since 7 o’clock, and the end was not yet. Everything hollow in the house was full of half boiled rice. Jack had bought a whole sack. He carried it back next day to the Indian Bar store and exchanged it for other provision, remarking that he thought a pound would last him for the remainder of his days.

The first eggs we had were from the Farallon islands, situated in the ocean about fifty miles from San Francisco. They were laid by sea gulls and “murs,” a black bird with a red bill about the size of a half grown hen. These eggs are about twice the size of a hen’s product. The gulls color their eggs brown. The “murs” put on a mottle of blue, white and black. They are in taste fishy. We did not taste much fish in the first eggs because we were hungry for eggs. But the second panned out piscatorially as much as was agreeable, and by the time you reached the third you could hardly tell whether it was a porpoise or eggs you were eating.

Most miners at first had crude ideas as to the amount of provisions they should buy for times and seasons. Mike Barton came one day in October to the Hawkins Bar store and said he wanted to lay in a stock of grub for the winter. Mike had struck a rich “pot hole” on Gawley’s point. A “pot hole” may be two or three feet deep and as round and even as a stove pipe. Some loose stone lving on the bed rock, and turned for countless ages by a whirlpool, bores it. Then it fills up with gravel and gold dust. Mike had pickle jars full of gold dust buried about his cabin. He kept a keg of brandy on free tap for his friends. Mike was rich for the first time in his life, and life for him without plenty of whisky hadn’t much in it.

Said the storekeeper to Mike: “Give us your list of provision for the winter.” Mike hesitated, “I guess, said he at last, “I’ll have a sack of flour, a sack of potatoes, then pounds of pork, five pounds of coffee, three of sugar, a pound of tea — and — and — a barrel of whisky.”

On Fourth of July Bob Gardiner gave a dinner at his store on Swelt’s Bar. The “boys” smelt that dinner for three miles along the river. Bob waxed patriotic at the close of the feast, which terminated with a plum pudding and “hard sauce.” Bob mounted the table and straddled what was left of the pudding. Next him sat old Turley. Turley’s head was bald. It had gone to sleep and laid on the table beside his plate. Next is was the bowl of hard sauce. Bob emphasized every telling sentence by dipping from the bowl a ladle full of sauce and bringing it down on old Turley’s cranium. This brought down the house every time. When the oration was over you could have taken a cast of Turley’s head in “hard sauce.”

Those were indeed happy, hopeful, flush times. Wages then were still $4 a day, and hen’s eggs were $1.50 per dozen. The hens had then arrived and commenced laying. There’s some fun in laying eggs at $1.50 per dozen.

PRENTICE MULFORD

The News (Frederick, Maryland) May 14, 1887

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