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Cooking with buffalo chips and 5 other prairie meal life hacks



Listen cow people, mounting your ponies and hitting the prairie was no Sunday stroll. That shit was hard and it was long and it was dirty and you had a pretty good chance of dying of cholera. Yeah, that's right, cholera. Thanks to unsanitary water, discarded trash, and contaminated food, Vibrio cholerae spread through the Oregon Trail faster than a viral video of "A Bad Lip Reading of Donald Trump's Inauguration." The worst outbreaks occurred in 1849, 1850, and 1852, according to the Oregon-California Trails Association. And the only available treatment? Laudanum, a.k.a. pure opium.

So yeah, you may have thought everything was all "rock me mama like a wagon wheel" on the way to the West, but this was no Old Crow Medicine Show.

It was a lot of dusty days punctuated by moments of boredom, exhaustion, and sheer terror. And to make it to the left coast alive, proper meal planning and preparation were essential. Fortunately, we found an old, tattered wagon train listicle providing today's frontiersmen and women with prairie meal life hacks. Feel free to apply these to your own life today.

Find some buffalo shit, light it on fire

Fun fact: firewood isn't always readily available on the prairie. But just because you can't find some logs to burn doesn't mean dinner ain't gonna get cooked. Ladies, just hitch up your petticoats and wander through the tall grass looking for shit. Yes, burning dried buffalo poop can be used to bake bread, cook bacon, and basically survive. Does it smell good? Course not, but you can eat easy knowing that feces fuel is highly sustainable.

Drink your vinegar

The odds of getting the 'itis on the long haul to the West were about as good as a Kardashian naming a baby an adjective. One frontier diarist wrote that travelers "generally get a pint of mud out of every pail of water." Consuming a peck a dirt with every sip, overlanders were bound to get the shits. The remedy? Vinegar, the old west's cure-all. Just "take a clean oaken-barrel or wine-cask, place it in a warm room ... or hot place where the sun will strike it, put two gallons of fermented cider in it" then "leave the bung out... and in two to three weeks it will be fit for us." Cows looking a little green? Give them some too. Today drinking vinegars are trendy, which just goes to show Joseph Smith wasn't the only prophet on the prairie.

Beat away the bacon blues with some fresh berries

Bacon and biscuits may be the stuff of 21st century breakfast dreams, but heading to Oregon territory, travelers had just about had enough of them by the time they reached their final destination. George L Curry, who traveled West in 1846 wrote in the St. Louis Reveille, "Life on the plains far surpasses my expectations... Bacon and hard biscuit occasionally interfere with this fairydom, but that only occurs twice a day." Pioneers were encouraged to pack at minimum 75 pounds of bacon for the trip, so it's no wonder the sight of the fatty meat made them gag near the end. Fortunately, berries could often be foraged on the trail. Considered the "crown jewels of campfire cuisine" the women dried them, stewed them, "wet them up in some dough and boiled them" or added nutmeg to them for dumpling desserts. Strawberries are in season now in Charleston in case you want to give this recipe a whirl.

You can pickle that

Food preservation was of key concern to overlanders as they packed their bursting wagons to the brim with everything they'd need to make a new life. Naturally, pickles were a go-to provision and really anything they could salt and can was thrown in a jar, including potatoes. An 1869 recipe suggests adding shallot and beet root to the potato pickles to give them "a fine red color." Mmm, pass me more a dem pink 'taters ya son of a gun.

Make it special, make it a meat biscuit

A portable soup called Meat Biscuit made by boiling meat or fowl with the bones into a gelatinous substance set in pans to dry until hard was all the rage for tenderfeet on the trail. A Mr. Gail Borden, Jr. came up with the concept while "endeavoring to make some portable meat glue (the common kind known) for some friends who were going to California." The product was advertised in the St. Louis Missouri Republican in 1853 as "a highly nutritious food ... with one pound containing the nutriment of five pounds of the best beef, will keep in perfect preservation for any length of time." This wonder lunch was made to be dropped into boiling water. If that's not a 19th century Cup-a-Noodles precursor, we don't know what is.

Rough day? Try some Firewater

If you think you need a drink after a long day at the office, consider three months on the Oregon Trail. After traveling through Topeka, Kan., Casper, Wyo., and Boise, Idaho, the emigrants needed a party and fortunately Fourth of July was just as popping in 1840 as it is today. One trail rider, E.W. Conyers wrote, "we celebrated the 4th of July. The breaking of one or two bottles of good liquor, which had been hid to prevent a few old tapsters from stealing, (so thirsty do they become on this route for liquor of any kind, that the stealing of it is thought no crime) ... song and toast, created one of the most pleasurable excitements we've had on the road. Leather-necks hit the Benzene hard and partied like spooney spoops too big for their britches." Or so I'm told. Take a cue from these hellions: Pour yourself some hooch and have yourself a big and rich time this weekend.

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