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Local History: Our Town – Our Story: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done: Part 6, Bake on Saturday
by Ann Koppy, BHSoc Historian
Pioneer women followed a regular routine for household chores:
- Wash on Monday.
- Iron on Tuesday.
- Mend on Wednesday.
- Churn on Thursday.
- Clean on Friday.
- Bake on Saturday.
- Rest on Sunday.
Quiz: These are a few of the words familiar to homesteading families, but less common today. Do you know what these are?
- A) Loppered.
- B) Spider.
- C) Grate jack.
- D) Saleratus.
Cooking on the Trail
The westward journey was never an easy one, presenting many tests of will and the need to make do. This was particularly true on the Oregon Trail as families faced daily hardships. The rigors of Trail travel nevertheless demanded foods that would fill the stomach: bread, pancakes, potatoes and meats. This was no place for delicate cakes. Preparing hearty fare in difficult conditions over an open campfire wasn’t easy. Lodisa Frizzell, a California-bound pioneer of 1852, once said referring to the arduous journey, “It goes agin the grane.” Women often baked bread in a skillet or Dutch oven at day’s end for the next day’s breakfast. Smoke blew in their eyes, dust swirled, and teeth chattered as nighttime temperatures dropped. Rainy days just made it more difficult.
Diaries tell of wives holding an umbrella over the fire or fashioning a makeshift oven of hot rocks in a hole in the ground. After six or so months of using wet wood, grasses, and buffalo dung for fuel, they longingly remembered the cast iron cook stoves left behind.
Early Coal Ranges
The typical kitchen of the 1870s-1890s would have had a wood or coal burning range, purchased from a mail order catalog or large department store. Features varied according to price. An Uncle Sam model, manufactured by Abendroth Brothers of New York, included a large oven, lined doors, clinker clearing, illuminated fire box, two grates, hot closet, side reservoir, and six burners. A mid-price stove weighed between 200-300 pounds and cost $25.00 (about $660 in today’s dollars.)
There were no thermostats to regulate the stove’s temperature, so women had to keep an eye on it throughout the day. Any time the fire died down, they adjusted a flue or added more fuel. In the chapter on bread making, Marion Harland’s 1892 edition of Common Sense in the Household advised, “The oven should not be too hot. If you cannot hold your bare arm within it while you count thirty, it is too quick.” (Quick is 375-400 ˚ Fahrenheit.) She believed good bread—light, sweet, wholesome– was an unknown phenomenon. Sour breads, leathery griddlecakes, or clammy biscuits were the norm and resulted from over rising, unhygienic cooks, poor quality flour or flat yeast.
Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann produced the first commercial yeast in 1868. The Compressed Yeast Cake was made in their Cincinnati factory and distributed nationwide. It simplified home baking by eventually eliminating the need for housewives to make their own. A yeast recipe for the experienced cook required potatoes, cold water, hops, flour, salt, and sugar. The process would take up to four days and would keep for a month in a cool dark place. Beaverton residents probably bought their hops from growers in the Willamette Valley, where the industry had just been established.
The transition from home baked to large-scale commercial baking began about the turn of the 20th century. When the first sliced, pre-packaged bread appeared on store shelves in 1928, the coarse-grained, made-from-scratch loaves lost their appeal. Today’s cooks can continue the hand-made tradition, or choose a bread-making machine to bring the fresh, yeasty aroma into their homes.
- A) Loppered is curdled milk.
- B) A spider is a 3-legged frying pan.
- C) A grate jack was used to place pots over an open fire.
- D) Saleratus is baking soda and used as a leavening agent.
Interested in more local history? Visit www.historicbeaverton.org