FRONTIER EATING ; from Pioneer Log Cabins to the Blennerhassett Mansion

By Imbrogno, Douglas | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), August 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

FRONTIER EATING ; from Pioneer Log Cabins to the Blennerhassett Mansion


Imbrogno, Douglas, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Their diets couldn't have been more different.

The table served while entertaining at the large mansion on Blennerhassett Island in, say, 1801, groaned under the weight of a two-course meal - soups, fish, apple dumplings, boiled ham, breads, sweet potatoes, green beans, even chocolate. Meanwhile, out in the woodlands of Western Virginia - in what would later become West Virginia - many frontier families were lucky to have a single kettle, and cornmeal mush might be served every day for supper.

Local food historians Martha and Richard Hartley of Cairo, West Virginia, will draw these distinctions as part of a "Food Ways Tour at the mansion at 12:45 and 2 p.m. this Saturday at Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park. The tours costs $4 adults, $2 for children 3 to 12.

The Hartleys just published a book entitled "The Frontier Table: A Treatise & Source Book on Western Virginia Foodways History 1776- 1860, which is available after the tours and through their website at wvhearthcook.com.

The Blennerhassett family had wealth enough to fill up their table.

"They had an acre-and-a-half of orchards of peaches and plums and apples and cherries, to hothouses that grew lemons and limes. They had the wealth to order from warehouses or what stores there were in Marietta, things like chocolate, Richard said.

For homesteaders on the Western Virginia frontier it was another story.

"Lots of times it wasn't very much, but if they could plant a crop of corn and get it to harvest then they would stand a chance of having something to eat, plus other things they could grow and hunt and gather, Martha said.

"If they could clear land enough to plant a crop of corn that was the first and primary food that they tried to do. That food adapted itself to this climate and this growing situation. Then, they would be planting things like pumpkins and squash and beans. They didn't plant, like, wheat and barley and other grains until they got more land cleared.

Of course, they would hunt for whatever game there was in the forest, she said. "But they soon learned that having pigs, hogs, who could forage for themselves in the forest was a good source of meat. As soon as they could, they would plant orchards, especially along the river valleys - peaches and apples.

The settler population at that time was a mix of people in western Virginia, both British and Scotch-Irish as well as Germans and French Huguenots, Protestants who fled France for religious and cultural reasons in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, said Richard.

"They brought food culture customs with them. The British preferred as meat beef, the Scotch-Irish it was pork or mutton. Germans were often one-pot meals often using pork.

On the other hand, sometimes frontier families made do with what they could find. An account in the Hartley's book tells of a traveling preacher who started from Parkersburg and went back up into the headwaters of the Elk River.

"He talks about being in the homes of these early settlers and this was 1818, Richard said. "This preacher talks about being in one of the log homes. …

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