Most journals by early Yellowstone travelers provide descriptions of the sights: geysers, canyons, falls and wildlife, but only a few tell about ordinary activities like preparing food. Ernest Ingersoll, who explored the West in 1874 and 77 with Yellowstone surveyor F.V. Hayden, wrote about such things. In the late nineteenth century, Ingersoll became a famous naturalist, writer and lecturer. Here’s his account of an evening meal as it might have been prepared in the park in 1880.
The place for the camp having been indicated, the riding animals are hastily unsaddled, and then every one turns to help unpack and place the cargo in orderly array. The very first mule unloaded is the staid veteran distinguished by the honor of bearing the cuisine. The shovel and axe having been released from their lashings, the cook seizes them, and hurriedly digs a trench, in which he starts his fire. While it is kindling, he and anybody else whose hands are free cut or pluck up fuel.
We are so stiff sometimes from our eight or ten hours in the saddle that we can hardly move our legs; but it is no time to lie down. Hobbling round after wood and water limbers us up a little, and hastens the preparation of dinner, that blessed goal of all our present hopes.
If a stream that holds out any promise is near, the rod is brought into requisition at once; and, if all goes well, by the time the cook is ready for them, there are enough fish for the crowd. Flies, as a general thing, are rather a delusion to the angler than a snare for the fish. The accepted bait is the grasshopper, except when there are great numbers of this insect, in which case the fish are all so well fed that they will not bite.
We used to keep our eyes open all day, and pounce upon every grasshopper we could find, saving them for the evenings fishing. The usual catch was salmon trout—great two and three-pounders, gleaming, speckled, and inside golden pink, that sunset color called salmon. They were not gamy, though, and we were glad of it, since the object was not sport, but the despised pot. It really was more exciting to capture the lively bait than it was to hook the trout.
But all this happens while the cook gets his fire well a-going. That accomplished, and two square bars of three-quarters inch iron laid across the trench, affording a firm resting place for the kettles, the stove is complete. He sets a pail of water on to heat, jams his bake-oven well into the coals on one side, buries the cover of it in the other side of the fire, and gets out his long knife. Going to the cargo, he takes a side of bacon out of its gunny-bag, and cuts as many slices as he needs, saving the rind to grease his oven.
Then he is ready to make his bread. Flour is more portable than pilot biscuit; therefore warm, light bread, freshly made morning and night, has gratefully succeeded hardtack in all mining and mountain camps. Sometimes a large tin pan is carried, in which to mould the bread; but often a square half-yard of canvas kept for the purpose, and laid in a depression in the ground, forms a sufficiently good bowl, and takes up next to none of the precious room.
When a bread-pan is taken it is lashed bottom up on top of the kitchen-mules pack. If it breaks loose and slips down on his rump, or dangles against his hocks, there is likely to be some fun; and when a sudden squall sweeps down from the high mountains, and the hailstones beat a devils tattoo on that hollow pan, the mule under it goes utterly crazy. The canvas bread-pan is therefore preferred. Sometimes even this is dispensed with, and the bread is mixed up with water right in the top of the flour-bag, and is molded on the cover of a box or some other smooth surface. Baking powder, not yeast, is used, of course.
Sometimes the cook used the Dutch oven which every one knows, a shallow iron pot, with a close fitting iron cover upon which you can pile a great thickness of coals, or can build a miniature fire. Having greased the inside of the oven with a bacon rind, bread bakes quickly and safely.
A better article, however, results from another method. Mold your bread well, lay the round loaf in the skillet and hold it over the fire, turning the loaf occasionally, until it is somewhat stiff; then take it out, prop it upright before the coals with the help of a twig, and turn it frequently. It is soon done through and through, and on both sides alike
The table furniture, and a large portion of the small groceries, such as salt, pepper, mustard, etc., are carried in two red boxes, each two and a half feet long, one and a half feet broad, and a foot high. Each box is covered by a thin board, which sets in flush with the top of the box, and also by two others hinged together and to the edge of the box.
Having got his bread a-baking, the cook sets the two boxes a little way apart, unfolds the double covers backward until they rest against each other, letting the ends be supported on a couple of stakes driven into the ground, and over the whole spreads an enameled cloth. He thus has a table two and a half feet high, one and a half feet wide and six feet long.
Tin and iron ware chiefly constitute the table furniture, so that, as frequently happens, the mule may roll a hundred feet or so down the mountain and not break the dishes. His table set, John returns to his fire, and very soon salutes our happy ears with his stentorian voice in lieu of gong: Grub P-i-i-i-le!
— Excerpt abridged from Ernest Ingersoll, “Rocky Mountain Cookery,” Scribner’s Monthly 29(1)125-132 (May 1880).
— Illustration from Ingersoll’s book, Knocking Around the Rockies. Harpers: New York, 1882.