From molasses to corn cakes, the food our ancestors ate is an important part of history and can tell a story in itself.
“Pioneers were eating all kinds of surprising and interesting things. Brigham Young liked to eat pigeons,” said Brock Cheney of Willard, a Mormon food expert, blogger and author.
Cheney will be reading from his freshly published book, “Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers” (University of Utah Press), at the 15th Annual Utah Humanities Book Festival, a string of literary events throughout the state in October for National Book Month.
Cheney’s reading at Weber State University this week is free to the public; it is at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, in the Special Collections department of the Stewart Library on campus.
The author did much of his research for “Plain but Wholesome” in WSU Special Collections, where he found manuscripts and diaries from the pioneer era.
Much of what he discovered was purely fascinating, Cheney said.
For example, in 1868, a shipment of fresh oysters showed up in Salt Lake City. The oysters were shipped live, packed in boxes of ice. Cornmeal, sprinkled on the ice, filtered down as the ice melted, to feed the oysters along the way. “So people were eating oysters on the half shell in Salt Lake,” Cheney said.
“Plain but Wholesome” contains approximately 60 historical photos; Cheney will have a slide show with many of the photos during the reading.
“There are all sorts of incidental moments,” he said. One photo is of a little girl, sitting on the back porch, surrounded by about 10 apples, each of which is missing a single bite. “For pioneers, fruit was their treat,” Cheney said.
Another photo shows an old-time molasses mill, where workers squeezed sugar cane for syrup, then boiled the juice down to molasses. “It was very crude business, not done in a factory, but outdoors with horses, over an open fire,” Cheney said. “It doesn’t look like it would render anything tasty or sweet — rather something gritty, dirty and sooty.”
According to the University of Utah Press, Cheney’s book “presents a groundbreaking foray into Mormon history and explores the foodways of Mormon pioneers from their trek west to the arrival of the railroad and reveals new perspectives on the fascinating Mormon settlement era.”
One chapter addresses early food storage systems. For example, some pioneers had a “spring house,” which used water to cool their milk and make cheese. Others used root cellars to keep crops from freezing in the winter. Many pioneers used fruit-drying methods to preserve their food.
Another photo is of a fruit festival in Hurricane, Utah. Tables were overflowing with grapes, which were crushed to make wine.
“Plain but Wholesome” also addresses family food traditions, some of which were handed down from pioneers and are linked to genealogy and Mormon history.
Cheney graduated from WSU with a bachelor’s degree in English and from Utah State University with a master’s degree in American studies. He worked at the living-history This Is the Place Heritage Park and at Garr Ranch on Antelope Island. He has done historical re-enactments as a hobby for more than 20 years.
Cheney was intrigued after seeing a historical food demonstration at Jensen Historical Farm in Cache Valley, now American West Heritage Center. His curiosity led him to dig further and write his book.
“Plain but Wholesome” has been three years in the making and was released
Oct. 10. The book is being sold for $14 to $20, depending on the store or website. It is also available as an e-book.
“The book has been his labor of love for a long time and I am very excited that it is coming out,” said WSU history professor Kathryn MacKay, adding, “The book connects us very powerfully to a community.”
Cheney the blogger
Cheney also has a Mormon food blog, “Plain but Wholesome: Adventures in Mormon Pioneer Food” (http://pioneerfoodie.blogspot.com), which he launched in 2008 to use as a tool to gather information, but also so his readers could chat and exchange recipes and family food traditions.
The blog turned out to be more fun than an actual research tool. “People who are interested in this subject have followed along the progress of my completing the book,” Cheney said. There is generally a spike in hits
on his blog around July 24, when people are searching for pioneer recipes or facts to help them celebrate Utah’s Pioneer Day, he added.
Lindsey Johnson, 31, of Spanish Fork, who grew up in Davis County and attended WSU, is a big fan of Cheney’s blog. “He really digs in to find the story behind the food and that’s what makes it interesting,” Johnson said.
“He takes the readers along on his journey,” Johnson said. “He is very willing to share what he finds; and he appreciates your comments and your feedback, too.”
“Many Utahns are descendents of Mormon pioneers,” she said. “It helps us to learn more about them when we learn what they ate and what life was like. People are more connected that way.”
Cheney teaches writing and literature to secondary-school students. In his spare time, he likes to bake and create interesting foods.
He recently built a brick oven in his basement. He mainly uses it for baking artisan bread, which is a homemade high-yeast bread full of whole grains. “It’s a historical approach to bread baking,” Cheney said.
The author and his wife, Shannon, have six daughters, ages 11 to 17, along with two cats and two dogs.
Go to http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/upcat/id/1851/rec/1 for more information on Cheney’s book.