Historical tidbits: What did the Pony Express riders eat? by Iva Polansky

Posted by on May 11, 2012 in 19th Century U.S., Historical Tidbits | Comments Off on Historical tidbits: What did the Pony Express riders eat? by Iva Polansky

Sir Richard Burton, adventurer, explorer, linguist – and much more (*) – is best known for his translation of the Kama Sutra and the collected stories of the Arabian Nights. His travels along the Pony Express route offer us a taste of the food served in the remote stations across America. Endurance and stamina was required by both the Express riders and their stomachs. See what Burton writes after yet another bad breakfast somewhere in Nebraska:

“For a breakfast cooked in the usual manner, coffee boiled down to tannin…meat subjected to half sod, half stew, and lastly, bread, raised with sour milk corrected with soda, and so baked that the taste of the flour is ever prominent, we paid $0.75 [equivalent to $ 20.00 today] at a station near Fort Laramie…’Our breakfast was prepared in the usual prairie style. First the coffee–three parts burnt beans–which had been duly ground to a fine powder and exposed to the air, lest the aroma should prove too strong for us, was placed on the stove to simmer till every noxious principle was duly extracted from it. Then the rusty [rancid] bacon, cut into thick slices, was thrown into the fry-pan; here the gridiron is unknown, and if known, would be little appreciated, because it wastes the ‘drippings,’ which form the staff of life in a luxurious sop. Thirdly, antelope steak, cut off a corpse suspended for the benefit of the flies outside, was placed to stew within influence of the bacon’s aroma. Lastly came the bread,  which of course should have been ‘cooked’ first. The meal is kneaded with water and a pinch of salt; the raising is down by means of a little sour milk, or more generally by the deleterious yeast-powders of the trade. The carbonic acid gas evolved by the addition of water must be corrected and the dough must be expanded by saleratus or prepared carbonate of soda and alkali, and other vile stuff, which communicates to the food a green-yellow tinge, and suggests many of the properties of poison. A hundredfold better, the unpretending chapati, flapjack scone, or as the Mexicans prettily call it, ‘tortilla’! The dough after being sufficiently manipulated up a long, narrow smooth board is divided into ‘biscuits’ and ‘doughnuts,’ and finally it is placed to be half cooked under the immediate influence of the rusty bacon and gaveloent antelope. ‘Uncle Sam’s stove,’ be it said with every reference for the honoured name it bears, is a triumph of convenience, cheapness, unwholesomeness and nastiness–excuse the word, nice reader. This travelers’ bane has exterminated the spit and gridiron, and makes everything taste like its neighbour by virtue of it, mutton borrows the flavor of salmon-trout, tomatoes resolve themselves into greens–I shall lose my temper if the subject is not dropped.” 

(*)Sir Richard Burton’s biography is worth reading.

This historical tidbit has been contributed by Iva Polanskythe author of Fame and Infamy,  a novel set in 1870’s France. Her blog Victorian Paris is dedicated to life in 19th century Paris.