Printed with permission of the Alpine Avalanche – July 27, 2017
One of the things I love about living in Fort Davis is being near the Fort Davis National Historic Site. If ever you feel like modern life is weighing you down, take a step back to a simpler time with a visit to the fort. If you’ve never strolled around the grounds and peeked in the windows to catch a glimpse of life in the 1800s, you’re missing out. It’s truly my #1 favorite place to visit.
The other day, we ran over to the fort to renew our National Parks pass. While we were in the visitor center, I found a cookbook I’d never seen before – “An Army Wife’s Cookbook” – filled with recipes of Alice Kirk Grierson, the wife of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson of the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Davis, in the late 1860s or thereabouts. This might just be the best $6.95 I’ve spent in recent years.
The cookbook is a pleasure to read – it has stories of the Grierson family’s 19th century lives, as well as some of the 600+ recipes that Alice collected in her personal cookbook. There are household hints and tips from back in the olden days as well. For example, a recipe for hair dye included sugar of lead, lac sulphur, glycerine, rose water and bay rum. Yikes.
The original cookbook was donated to the National Park Service at the Fort Davis National Historic Site in 1968, having spent nearly three decades in Marfa after being donated to a secondhand store by the Griersons’ youngest son in 1935 when he was cleaning out the family properties in Fort Davis.
According to the new cookbook, the National Park Service Wives and their friends tested over 100 of the handwritten recipes that had brief instructions, and made any necessary changes to bring them up to date, while staying as true as possible to the original recipe. Adding to the charm of the cookbook is that Alice’s original recipe as she wrote it is printed first, followed by the modernized and tested recipe.
Frontier wives faced many challenges when it came to cooking. Not only were they living without refrigeration, they also used wood burning stoves that required the proper amount of attention to keep the temperatures just right. As listed in the cookbook, one method of testing the oven’s temperature was by the amount of stinging pain felt under your fingernails when you held your hand inside the hot oven for a certain period of time. I am grateful for the advances in kitchen appliances we enjoy in the 21st century.
Pictures below are glimpses into a fully-working restored kitchen at the fort. The kitchen herb garden is right out the door.
Notice how the kitchen is separate from the house in case of fire and to keep the “cooking odors” out of the house. Kitchen herb gardens are the landscape.
Alice had a cushier lifestyle than most frontier wives of her time. She came from a wealthy family and was able to have at least two full-time servants, sometimes three or four. She was the Colonel’s wife, after all. One servant was the cook, and when a new cook arrived they were either shown how to make the favorite dishes or Alice would copy the recipes from her personal cookbook for them to use.
Inside the Commissary at the fort – as you can see, cooks had to get pretty creative with a minimal selection of goods. You can only do so much with peas, succotash, hominy and dried apples.
The cookbook has relatively few recipes for main dishes because army rations weren’t very varied and the main meat available was beef. Unless you had chickens or access to chickens, eggs were also hard to come by and several recipes were for baked goods “without eggs.” Alice was thrilled when her sons were old enough to hunt because rather than just beef, they could eat quail and pheasants in addition to other wild game, however there were no recipes for game in her collection.
While I won’t be testing out the recipe for hair dye, I have several pages marked with recipes that I can’t wait to prepare. Head on over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site for a tour and to pick up your own copy of this sweet taste of frontier life.
Peach Tapioca Pudding
(This popular 19th century dessert can be made quickly on top of the stove by using minute or quick-cooking tapioca)
From “An Army Wife’s Cookbook” – note the original recipe is in italics, while the modern version is below in regular print.
Soak ½ pint of tapioca in ½ pint of cold water for several hours. Fill a baking dish, about half full of canned peaches, without the sirup, sprinkle the peaches with sugar and bake for half an hour. Add ½ pint of peach sirup to the tapioca, some boiling water and sugar; boil until it is perfectly clear, pour it over the peaches, and bake slowly for another half hour. Served with sugar and cream when cold.
½ cup juice from canned peaches
1-1/2 cups water
½ cup minute or quick-cooking tapioca
½ cup sugar (I used ¼ cup and it was perfectly sweet enough)
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups sliced canned peaches, diced and drained
Combine peach juice, water, tapioca, sugar and salt in top of double boiler. Blend well. Cook, stirring frequently until tapioca is clear. Fold in drained peaches and cook one minute longer. Remove from heat. Serve in sherbet glasses. Top with whipped cream. Makes six servings.
My sherbet glasses are in storage so I opted for a parfait-like serving, layering the sticky pudding with homemade whipped cream. I plan to make this again – and try different sizes of tapioca.