The prevailing image of Montana culture is cowboy culture. But I've never been much of a cowgirl because I've got an unfortunate allergy to horses. I suppose I could saddle up a goat or, like some of the less-wise Yellowstone tourists, a bison. But maybe there's a way I can connect with my Montana roots (I am, after all, a life-long Montanan) while staying sneeze-free? Is having a majestic beast between my thighs the only way to be considered a "real Montanan"?
So I chose food. I love food and all the joy it can bring people. But food is also history - cooking what our forefathers (and mothers!) cooked is a great way to try to imagine what life might have been like for them. Montana's early settlers had to adapt to their beautiful-but-cruel surroundings by eating whatever they could get their rough, chapped hands on. I imagine, from the comfort and luxury of my sofa, that they must have made meals of handfuls of dirt, occasionally spiced up with a helping of buffalo chips.
So I set out to find authentic pioneer recipes, hopefully with a minimum of horse, badger, or beans. As an aside, have you ever really considered how much beans settlers and cowboys ate? As one of the few forms of produce that would keep on the trail, it was a staple in the diets of cowboys following the herd, settler families heading west, and pretty much everyone who didn't have access to a garden. Imagine the quantities of methane produced.
I like the magical fruit as much as the next gal, but I decided to try to avoid them for now.
A particular recipe piqued my interest; a milkless, eggless, butterless cake, which sounds to me like a vegetarian steak: maybe not impossible, but probably not good. But the recipe seemed much easier to accomplish than, say, curing a hunk of bacon in an old barrel. The closest thing to a barrel in my house is a trash can, and no one wants dumpster meat.
I had my recipe, and now I was ready for execution. I donned my late grandmother's old western shirt, put on a Marty Robbins record, and rolled up the extra-long sleeves (she was a bigger lady than me). I may look like a tourist in this realm, but I felt ready to deliver a hot cake to my neighbors homestead on horseback. Let's get started!
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup cold water
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 25 ml hot or lukewarm water
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
The ingredients seemed like simple, easily accessible goods, right? Well, I substituted craisins. This may not have been an option open to the pioneers of yore, but, all cards on the table, I prefer craisins. Perhaps this is an insult to the memory of the pioneers that braved the Bozeman Trail. If so, than I imagine using my oven, which though ancient (it was made in the 1970s!), is probably not historically accurate. I bet my landlord wouldn't want me to dig a pit into the lawn to fill with hot coals, so this will have to do for now.
I inspected the directions:
- Boil the brown sugar in a cup of cold water with all the prepared raisins.
- Add in the salt, cloves, and cinnamon.
- Then, also, stir in the nutmeg and shortening.
- Boil for 3 minutes and let it cool.
- Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water you prepared, then add flour and baking powder.
- Add the baking soda mix to the first mixture.
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes at 350°F.
I was expecting a recipe with such simple ingredients to be calm and casual, but I was mistaken. The fast pace, coupled with vague directions, forced me into making snap decisions. To start, I was to boil brown sugar, water, and the craisins. Once that is boiling, I was to add a series of spices and shortening in a particular order. As you can see, it says to add the nutmeg after the cinnamon, but when exactly? If they were to be added at the same time, would that ruin the recipe? Their separation was deliberate and so I will honor that. Also, as a C student in Chemistry, I worried that if I added them at the same time, some little-known chemical reaction might cause the whole mess to explode, so I waited ten seconds before getting anxious and throwing the nutmeg into what I can only describe as a toxic boiling sugar slop. The smell was divine, but the look was less than ideal.
Once all the correct items were bubbling, I took the pot off the heat to cool for no discernible amount of time. Cowboys and settlers knew how to rope a cow and how to conquer the west with the doctrine of manifest destiny, but I guess they hadn't figured out how to put the time in a recipe. On to the second part: the dry ingredients. I stirred the flour and water, skeptically, into what seems like an absolutely inconsequential amount of water (25 mL) and baking soda. If you can't picture it, 25mL is less than two tablespoons. Maybe this was a recipe for when you want cake, but are stuck in the middle of the desert. I am honestly not sure if dissolving the baking soda into that little water actually helped much, but I also do not possess the wisdom of a baker or the heart of a weathered-but-noble pioneer settler.
The final step before throwing what now resembled nothing so much as a loose conglomeration of some undiscovered and presumably unhealthy mammal's leavings into the oven, was to mix the dry ingredients into the wets.
Not being too keen on baking, and also beginning to feel the effects of a couple of fingers of rye I had poured earlier (though the recipe doesn't call for being a little drunk, I figured I wouldn't hurt too much), I learned too late that this is meant to be done in stages and not all at once. I desperately attempted to keep all of my ingredients in the bowl while stirring and folding, but that was an uphill battle. After making a mess of my entire kitchen, I finally put the results in the pan and put the pan in the oven for 35 minutes at 350. It was oddly thick, so I hoped the cake would bake up and not turn into a brick.
As the cake baked, I poured myself a couple more fingers of my favorite whiskey and fantasized about beans dying of dysentery while waiting for my smelly frontier husband to come home from being scalped. Eventually, the timer beeped, jostling me out of my reverie. I pulled the cake out for a final toothpick test before cutting into it.
Its appearance was lumpy like a cobbler or bread, but seemed properly cooked, with no charred pieces, or overly soggy spots evident. When I went to cut into the cake, the knife struggled to get through the top. It was crisp on the outside, but, to my surprise, genuinely moist inside. I tried to talk myself into wanting to take a bite, saying who cares what it looks like - the tough brown brick in front of me was designed to nourish hardy trailblazers. And, possibly, to survive a blizzard, tornado, or violent stampede.
I took my first bite. The cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg made for a lovely flavor. Sadly, that flavor took an instant backseat to a second flavor, which I will charitably call "hot cardboard box." I will say this: the craisins were fine, and that dipping the cake in whiskey didn't make it better, exactly, but did get me drunker.
Or maybe this is the point. The homesteader, traveller on the Oregon Trail, or cowboy who worked hard all day mending fences, planting crops or taming the wilds with just their hands and their wits might have thought about their warm hearth and their wife waiting with some home-cooked treat like this one.
And then they probably shuddered and decided to work a little longer instead of head home just yet.