A Taste of the Trail: Books Examine Explorers' Diet

The bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition recalls a number of the epic triumphs and tribulations of the Corps of Discovery, but several books in the Library's Missouri Valley Special Collections analyze a less-examined aspect of the journey: Food. Without daily nourishment of some kind, the explorers would not have had the energy to haul a keelboat up the Missouri River, survive a North Dakota winter, or portage the Great Falls of Montana. Books describing the culinary adventures of the expedition range from scholarly examinations of nutrition and food culture to gourmet interpretations that read like recipes straight from the pages of Bon Appetit magazine.

In preparation for the trip west, Lewis purchased 193 pounds of what would become a staple of the men's diet -"portable" or "pocket" soup. Lewis' expenditure of $289.50 on this item in May 1803 might be compared to a purchase of $4,500 worth of bouillon cubes in a 2004 supermarket. Mary Gunderson's Food Journal of Lewis & Clark (History Cooks, 2003) provides a recipe for authentic portable soup, consisting of oxtail, onions, carrots, salt, and a bay leaf for a little zing. The recipe calls for boiling these ingredients for five hours, straining out the solids to produce a "quivering, gelled mass" of oxtail stock, letting this substance congeal in a refrigerated pan, and cutting it into 3.5 inch squares. In 1803, these cubes were packed in canvas oilcloth sealed with wax. Gunderson advises storage at room temperature for historical authenticity.

Cornmeal cooked in various forms was another staple of the expedition. It was most often prepared as a "hoe cake" -- a patty of salted cornmeal fried in lard. Some 1,200 pounds of "parched meal" went up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, as well as one keg of lard and 600 pounds of "grees." The hoe cake was so named by early chefs who prepared it on the blade of a hoe over an open fire.

Once on the river and beyond, the nine men of the expedition went on what could be described as the most intense Atkins Diet of all time. An average of nine pounds of meat was consumed per man per day for much of the journey. Sergeant Ordway, a member of the Corps of Discovery, kept a careful tally of the game ingested from April 9-27, 1805. He records that the men ate all of the following in that three-week period: beaver, beaver tail, deer, deer liver, elk, buffalo, buffalo calves, buffalo tongue, antelope, white rabbit, muskrat, otter, grizzly bear, goose, goose eggs, bald eagles and swan. In his journal, Meriwether Lewis also writes of a potential backyard delicacy for many of us: "I made my dog take as many [squirrels] each day as I had occation for, they wer fat and I thought them fryed a pleasant food" (11 September, 1803). The physical effects of such a diet are examined in detail in Leandra Zim Holland's Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark (Old Yellowstone Publishing, 2003).

Additional books about food on the Lewis and Clark expedition range from cookbooks that interpret the men's culinary creativity rather generously (a recipe for "Hazelnut Mushroom Pate,” for instance, or an elk marinade containing garlic, virgin olive oil, shallots and celery seed), to cookbooks intending to document the food preparation techniques of Sacagawea and other Native Americans encountered by Lewis and Clark. So as you remember the sights and sounds of the Lewis and Clark Expedition this summer, don't forget the tastes. Gourmet cooks and historical purists alike know that the palate is a great way to share the experience of the Corps of Discovery.

Dan Coleman
Missouri Valley Special Collection Librarian