Roughing it in the kitchen

Posted: Thursday, July 28, 2005

Juneau writer Ann Chandonnet grew up on an apple and dairy farm in Dracut, Mass., which instilled her lifelong fascination with the origins of food.

Her love of cooking was also heavily influenced by her grandmother, Ethel Kimball Bodwell Fox. Born in 1888, she was 10 during the Klondike Gold Rush.

"When I had gone off to Alaska, she always used to say that she had dreamed of going to Alaska when she heard about the Klondike Gold Rush," Chandonnet said. "A lot of people dreamed about Alaska at that time."

Chandonnet's new book, "Gold Rush Grub: From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo," looks at the hopes, dreams, cupboards, kitchens and stomachs of the fortune seekers who flocked to California, Alaska and the Yukon between 1848 and 1915. It explores the ways in which the Industrial Revolution changed the foods that were available during the Gold Rush, the ingenious cooking methods of the times and the foibles, diseases and thrills that men and women faced on the trails and rivers between the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the hinterlands of Dawson.

"(My grandmother) cooked in the way that people do in this book," Chandonnet said. "Every scrap of everything was used and reused. You didn't throw out cooking water; you used it in gravy. And that's what I grew up with, making do."

"I was used to the idea that there was a lot of work to ingredients themselves," she said. "Most people go to the store and have no idea what a head of wheat looks like, or how it comes to be flour, and those things fascinate me. I like to eat, I like to cook and I like to know how ingredients are processed."

Chandonnet has been writing about food since 1971, when she began writing a column for an alternative weekly in Walnut Creek, Calif. She later wrote for the Anchorage Times and the Juneau Empire.

She published her first cookbook, "The Complete Fruit Cookbook," in 1972., and followed with "The Cheese Guide & Cookbook" in 1973. While researching for her third cookbook, 1995's "The Alaska Heritage Seafood Cookbook: Great Recipes from Alaska's Rich Kettle of Fish," she began finding information on Gold Rush cooking. She realized the topic would make a good book.

"Gold Rush Grub" is her first full-blown food history, meaning it traces ingredients back to their original countries and it explores the origins of dishes and chefs. Though there are many Gold Rush histories, Chandonnet said there are no true Gold Rush food histories.

"I didn't want it to be just an Alaska/Klondike history, and in seeing the changes between the foods that were available for the California Gold Rush and the foods that were available for the Klondike Gold Rush, I saw how those really reflected the Industrial Revolution," Chandonnet said.

"The foods they had in the Klondike really showed the development in railroads and in food processing," she said. "We learned how to can things. We learned how to evaporate dry things. Instant coffee wasn't available to the 49ers, but it was available to the 98ers. People know about the railroads connecting Chicago with San Francisco, but they don't realize what that has to do with food and that's what I wanted to tie up in this book."

The book chronicles the dishes that prospectors ate on the trails during their long journeys to strike it rich. Many of these men had no experience cooking, living in the wilderness or even taking care of themselves. Many of them were also taken advantage of by con-man suppliers and grubstakers. In his April 3, 1850 diary entry, one desperate 49er, Joseph Bruff, chronicles his experience making "Bluebird Soup." A few days later, he ate a candle. His dog ate the wick.

More surprising, perhaps, are the elaborately prepared dishes that were available to the wealthy, even on the Alaska and Yukon frontier.

Two "society ladies," Edith Van Buren and Mary E. Hitchcock, traveled up the Dawson River in the summer of 1898 with "a parrot, two canaries, air mattresses, hammocks, a 400-pound circus tent, a gramophone, a portable bowling alley, a mandolin and a new-fangled hand-crank ice cream freezer." On Aug. 12, 1898, they enjoyed a leisurely seven-course meal of "mock-turtle soup, roast moose, asparagus salad and peach ice cream."

The writer Robert William Service wandered through Dawson and Whitehorse as a bank employee, and talks of his breakfasts in Dawson. "My morning meal of ham and eggs (topped off with raspberry pie and coffee) I took in a bakery kept by an old Norwegian," he writes, on page 58. "I attracted others there and soon his place became a centre for light refreshments and social gossip." It's enough to make modern-day diners in Juneau envious.

The recipes include everything from biscuits, hardtack and baked beans to Arctic hare fricassee and jellied moose nose.

"I didn't put (moose nose) in there because it was bizarre," Chandonnet said. "I put it in there to show that every part of an animal was used, nothing was wasted. You killed a pig, you made sausages and you used up everything. My grandmother used to make this kind of thing. I despised it."

"I think people were more used to making do, and were more used to coming up with something themselves than we are," she said. "People have always experimented with whatever ingredients they had. You're limited only by your imagination."

Her research took her to the Alaska State Library and museum archives in Anchorage. She read out-of-print books and diaries, borrowed unpublished works and tracked down 100-year-old cookbooks, popular at the time of the gold rush, through rare book dealers. One of them, the 1891 "Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cookbook" was already part of her collection. Her grandmother owned it. The first Fairbanks cookbook, published in 1909, shows that the town's residents had access to anchovy paste.

"You look in them, you look at the back and you look at who's advertising in them, and it just tells you a great deal," Chandonnet said.

book signing

what: presentation by ann chandonnet, author of "gold rush

grub: from turpentine stew to hoochinoo."

when: 7-8:30 p.m. tuesday, aug. 2.

where: nugget mall hearthside books, free.

"When you look at photos you also get clues about things," she said. "You can see dried onions, canned milk, clams, flour. You can see what kinds of bottles they've got and their pots and pans. You can just see how they're living."

For the recipes in the book, Chandonnet tried to find dishes that were linked to historic personages.

"Ptarmigan with Cranberries," is an example of something that could have been on the Thanksgiving menu when Wyatt Earp spent the fall of 1898 in Rampart City, the farthest he and his third wife, Josephine, could get up river on the way to Dawson. Earp hunted ptarmigan in the area, and the area's residents ate high-bush and low-bush cranberries.

Some of the stampeders who made it to Dawson in 1898 sampled the traditional recipes of the Han, the Athabascan people native to the area. The two cultures shared ideas, resulting in dishes like "Devil's Club with Venison Gravy," a combination of the Hans' love for devil's club buds and the thick gravy beloved by prospectors.

At a banquet in Fairbanks on April 2, 1903, Judge James Wickersham, Italian prospector Felix Pedro (who found gold near town in a major strike on July 22, 1902) and a half-dozen newfound millionaires enjoyed roast moose, caribou cutlets, grilled grouse and canned spuds and "Hooch Albert's Best Brew" (pg. 162).

"A lot of these recipes are perfectly suitable and have been translated into modern measurements and time and temperatures," Chandonnet said. "I put a few in their original form so people could see what recipes used to be like 100 years ago. They were very minimal. You had to know what you were doing when you were making these dishes."


Devil's Club with Venison Gravy, page 55

In early spring, when protein-rich leaf buds emerge from the ends of the tan stalks, pick only when under 2 inches long; the leaf spines are pliable at this stage. Nibbled raw, the buds taste like intensely herbal celery leaves. Cooked, they are reminiscent of the edible bases of artichoke leaves.

2 cups devil's club leaf buds

1/4 cup onion, chopped

4 ounces mushrooms, sliced

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons corn oil

salt and pepper to taste

4 venison steaks or turkey breast cutlets

3 tablespoons flour

salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Pick over the devil's club carefully, making sure no crowns of thorns remain about their bases. Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Insert a basket steamer, and steam the buds 2 minutes. Drain.

Saute the buds with onion and mushroom slices in melted butter. When beginning to brown, turn off heat and cover.

Meanwhile, season venison steaks on both sides with salt and pepper. Fry the steaks in 2 tablespoons corn oil in a separate skillet. Remove the steaks to a warm place. Add flour to venison drippings, stirring or whisking constantly. Slowly stir in the milk until thickened to gravy. Salt and pepper to taste. Divide devil's club and other vegetable among four warmed dinner plates. Dish up steaks. Pour gravy over steaks and serve at once.

Makes 4 servings.


Clam Soup, page 188

This recipe is adapted from one by Mrs. R. Williams in "The Web-Foot Cook Book (1885), the first cookbook published in Oregon, and a common source for Klondike stampeders. Mrs. Williams boiled her soup for 2 or 3 hours!

50 clams

1 cup clam liquor

3 large potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled, in large dice

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

1/2 green cabbage (about 1 pound), chopped coarsely

2 hardtack, finely crushed

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup heavy cream

salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Wash the clams well. Steam them just until they open. Cool. Chop the meat coarsely.

In a soup pot, put 2 cups water and 1 cup clam liquor. Add potatoes and cook just until tender but not mushy. Meanwhile, steam carrots in another pan until tender.

Add to potatoes the clams, drained carrots and cabbage. Cover and simmer 5 minutes.

Stir in crushed crackers and butter. Then stir in cream. Let come just to boil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

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