Friday, September 28, 2018

Food, Glorious, Food—Nineteenth Century Grand Canyon Style

I have never been a big eater. My husband likes to tell the story of the first dinner I cooked for him. He mistook the entre, which I now know he could have eaten in a couple bites, for an appetizer and wondered when I was going to serve him the main course. What he didn’t know was that entre generally served my family of four, with leftovers the next day. But however little my family eats, even I was shocked at how little explorers in nineteenth century Arizona ate and what their diet consisted of.

I am confirming my research (lovely, lovely research!) for my October 2019 historical romance with my new publisher, Revell. A Scenic Beauty (title tentative) tells the story of a determined lady photographer on one of the early geologic surveys of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. My wonderful critique partner Kristy J. Manhattan found me a copy of John Wesley Powell’s diary of his first expedition of the canyon, which took place approximately 2 years before my story. (His second expedition is happening during my story.) Powell deserves his own blog post (coming soon), but for now, I’ll focus on the food.

Which wasn’t much.

Powell had ten men on his team, all well experienced with wilderness travel. Their goal was to successfully navigate down the Colorado, mapping it as they went. Armed with instrumentation to confirm elevation changes, estimate the heights of the cliffs, and determine the temperatures, they set off in four boats. Their rations included flour, saleratus (an early form of baking powder), bacon, salt pork, beans, dried apples, and coffee. They planned enough to last them for 10 months, in case they had to overwinter in the canyon.

The Colorado had other ideas.

Rapids quickly sank or at least swamped their boats. They lost a third of their rations within the first month. The rest was soon so water logged they had to stop they travels to lay it out on rocks in hopes it would dry enough to eat. When the flour merely turned as hard as the rocks themselves, they beat it and sifted it through their mosquito netting, losing hundreds of pounds in the process. Somewhere along the way they lost the saleratus, because they went from having biscuits to unleavened “bread.”

They tried hunting and were mildly successful, but when they shot something, they tended to eat nothing but meat and coffee for the night. Dinner other nights consisted of boiled spoiled bacon and unleavened bread. One night they visited a garden abandoned by a hunter and trader. Nothing was ripe except the green tops of potatoes. They ate those and spent the evening violently ill. When they happened across land being farmed by Native Americans, they pilfered melons and paddled away as fast as they could. That night they gorged on “melon sauce,” which I take is like applesauce, but with melons, supplementing it with coffee and unleavened bread. That they made it out of the canyon alive—on the food alone—is amazing to me.

And it makes me terribly glad for the leftovers I plan to consume tonight. 😊

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