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Book review: 'Plain but Wholesome' new book on pioneer-era food traditions

By Margot Hovley

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6 2012 4:18 p.m. MST

"PLAIN BUT WHOLESOME: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers," by Brock Cheney, University of Utah Press, $19.95, 203 pages (nf)

Sego lily roots, anyone?

Brock Cheney's new book, "Plain but Wholesome," published by the University of Utah Press, goes far beyond our usual suppositions about what the Utah pioneers ate. Yes, they ate sego lily roots, just like Primary teachers say, but also wild onions, marrow bones and dishes from their ancestral homelands, like British hasty pudding and Danish æbleskivers.

The book contains sections on tools and equipment used, food ideas taken from Native Americans, trail food, hunting, bread-making, preserving, and foods from the Old World re-created pioneer style — all interesting in their own right.

Recipes are in their original form for hominy, egg noodles, molasses, hard tack, rabbit, and even how to boil rawhide: "Scorch and scrape hair off. After scraping, boil one hour in plenty of water, throwing the water away that had extracted all the glue, then wash and scrape the hide thoroughly, washing in cold water, then boil to a jelly and let it get cold, and then eat with a little sugar sprinkled on it."

Recipes are only a small part of the offering here. Stories about the pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abound in how food was a part of their culture, how it varied from place to place, and how it was procured and prepared. There are many black and white photographs, both historic and from the author's collection. Included are fascinating illustrations showing the interior of a flour mill and the layout of the Lion House.

If you've ever wondered how people managed to preserve food through a winter without the help of freezers, sterilizing equipment or vacuum packaging, this book will tell you how it was done — along with the differences and methods for drying, salting and curing meats. You'll also discover which of our current eating habits have come from the pioneer era.

"Plain but Wholesome" is written in a scholarly but engaging manner — easy to read, engrossing and authoritative. Extensive notes, references, indexes and a glossary are provided. In its pages, readers will glimpse the real lives of pioneers, rather than glorified or overly sentimental versions. Foodways scholars will welcome its addition to the field, and history buffs will appreciate the detail and thoroughness of the book.

Information on Cheney and "Plain but Wholesome" can be found at his blog, pioneerfoodie.blogspot.com.

Margot Hovley's first novel, "Sudden Darkness," was published by Covenant Communications in fall 2012. Find her popular self-reliance blog at www.mynewoldschool.com or read about her writing adventures at www.margothovley.com.

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