THE IRISH IN IOWA
The Way They Lived
The Food of the Primitive Times
Its History and Traditions
Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co 1927
Before the grist and flour mills came, grain was ground into flour between flat stones and sometimes in hand coffee mills. Much corn was eaten after it had been parched and rye similarly treated was a substitute for coffee. Green corn was dried and when cooked with beans made succotash, which was relished by the pioneers as much as by the aboriginies. To sweeten their foods, they filched honey from the bee trees and later they made molasses from cane which was grown like corn. The staple meat of the pioneers was pork, fresh and fresh-salted for winter use, and pickled or smoked for summer use. They had plenty of wild meat, too, but quail and prairie chicken surfeited them, while the appetite for pork lasted. "Corn bread, with pork and rye coffee," says one of the early chroniclers, "formed the prairie bill of fare, with an occasional dish of mustard greens." Another writer of these times varies this bill of fare by adding hominy or samp, venison, dried pumpkin and wild game, and a few additional vegetables. But Northwestern Iowa is a "big proposition," and the menu of its pioneers varied considerably with the section of their residence. The common hominy so much relished by them all was boiled corn from which the hulls had been removed with hot lye; hence called lye hominy. What was called "true hominy" was made by pounding the corn. For this purpose a mortar-like hole was made in the top of a stump, the corn placed in it and beaten with a maul. When it was sufficiently crushed, the bran was floated off in water and the delicious grain boiled like rice. All those who write knowingly of the early generation of pioneers in North-western Iowa, in whatever section, are agreed that wheat bread, tea, coffee and fruits were luxuries, reserved for "company" occasions.
Wild Game for Food and Sport
While the pioneer of Northwestern Iowa was waiting for his crops to mature, he found wild game, both of the feathered and furred variety, right at hand, waiting upon his skill to supply the family larder, to furnish him cash and to yield him means of recreation and outdoor sport. Two pioneers of typical counties in this section of the state draw pictures of the many varieties of the wild game which they found awaiting them in the '50s. One of them writes: "Besides the larger game, such as elk and deer, wild turkeys, prairie chickens and a species of curlews as big as chickens with bills about eight inches long, abounded. These curlews are not extinct. They had a peculiar whistle and were esteemed highly by the pioneers on account of their delicate flavor. Of waterfowl, there were myriads. Fat coons were slaughtered and considered very palatable by the settlers and, aside from their meat, the settlers received a revenue from the sale of their skins. Brother John was the trapper of the family and derived a considerable revenue from the sale of pelts. On a knoll near the house on the present Micham farm, I remember John baited a trap with a skunk for bait and soon had the hides of eighteen foxes from this one place. Mink was very plentiful and one year John sold $100 worth of mink skins, all trapped within the present city limits" (City of Cherokee).
Another picture: "Imagine a vast, unbroken tract of rolling prairie, stretching away in all directions beyond the range of human vision, with little groves of timber here and there along the water courses. Such was Calhoun County when the first men came to establish their homes within its borders. All over the broad prairie were swamps and ponds, where muskrat and water fowl abounded. The Indian had departed and the only dinizens of the country were the wild animals. Big game was plentiful, especially the elk; a few lynx and wildcats were to be found in the little forests; beaver, otter, mink and some other fur-bearing animals inhabited some localities; prairie wolves were numerous and their howling at night sometimes caused little children to shudder with fear, as they cuddled together in their beds; wishing that daylight would come. There was also a small animal called a swift, because of its fleetness of foot. In appearance it resembled a fox, but was smaller and not so cunning. As the country settled up. this swift became such a pest that the county authorities offered bounties upon swift scalps."
During the very early days, the settlers suffered little annoyance from wolves, or coyotes, as the small prairie wolves were called. The coyote emitted a blood-curdling howl, but was not feared and did little damage to livestock. It was only after the country became quite well settled that the farmers, located especially along and near the Little Sioux River, were annoyed by wolves; and they were the larger and fiercer timber wolves. The wild game having almost disappeared, the wolves, during the deep snows of winter, began to attack hogs and young stock. To thin out the wolves, both as a pest and objects of exciting sport, hunts were often organized. On an appointed day, the hunters gathered for conference. Captains of two parties were selected and the men placed so as to form a large circle. Hounds were also brought into the hunt so as to rout out the prey and assist in running them down. The circle was gradually narrowed until the wolves were sighted, when the dogs were loosed and the wolves dispatched, firearms being used with caution, if at all. The side getting the largest number of wolves was given a supper by the losers. Besides which, there were the proceeds from the "wolf scalps" to be considered.
Turkey shoots were different, as they tended to train the marksman in the killing of game which was a valued source of food. The expert marksman was not only a leading local character, but a valued provider for the housewife and family. A turkey was placed in a box, its head only protruding, and those engaging in the contest would draw a line at a distance agreed upon, usually several hundred yards, and pay so much per shot for the privilege of shooting at the protruding head; and he who killed the turkey owned it. It took a pretty good shot to send a rifle ball through the head of the bird thus placed, as that portion of its anatomy was always in motion. As to the actual profits of the sport, the man who furnished the turkeys usually came out ahead, although a number of birds were sure to be killed. The rivalry was as to which of the contestants could kill the most birds and the winner became a large figure in the community.
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© 2001 Cathy Joynt Labath