Feast or Famine: Food and Drink in American Westward Expansion

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Feast or Famine is the first comprehensive account of food and drink in the winning of the West, describing the sustenance of successive generations of western pioneers. Drawing on journals of settlers and travelers—as well as a lifetime of research on the American West—Reginald Horsman examines more than one hundred years of history, from the first advance of explorers into the Mississippi valley to the movement of ranchers and farmers onto the Great Plains, recording not only the components of their diets but food preparation techniques as well.

Most settlers were able to obtain food beyond the dreams of ordinary Europeans, for whom meat was a luxury. Not only were buffalo, deer, and wild turkey there for the taking, pioneers also gathered greens such as purslane, dandelion, and pigweed—as well as wild fruits, berries, and nuts. They replaced sugar with wild honey or maple syrup, and when they had no tea, they made drinks out of sage, sassafras, and mint. Horsman also reveals the willingness of Indians to convey their knowledge of food to newcomers, sharing salmon in the Pacific Northwest, agricultural crops in the arid Southwest.

Horsman tells how agricultural expansion and transportation opened a veritable cornucopia and how the development of canning soon made it possible for meals to transcend simple frontier foods, with canned oysters and crystallized eggs in airtight cans on merchants’ shelves. He covers food on different regional frontiers, as well as the cuisines of particular groups such as fur traders, soldiers, miners, and Mormons. He also discusses food shortages that resulted from poor preparation, temporary scarcity of game, marginal soil, or simply bad luck. At times, as with the ill-fated Donner Party, pioneers starved.

Engagingly written and meticulously researched, Feast or Famine is a one-of-a-kind look at a subject too long ignored in histories of the West. By revealing the spectrum of frontier fare across years and regions, it shows us that the land of opportunity was often a land of plenty.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A good read. . . . Most people who went west had little or no understanding of their food needs for basic survival. Horsman provides an excellent account of their ability to make do, endure, and persevere.”—R. Douglas Hurt, author of The Indian Frontier, 1763-1846

“The breadth and scope of this wide-ranging study is particularly impressive. The firsthand accounts convey authenticity and make for compelling reading.”—William Foley, author of Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826217899
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 6/25/2008
  • Edition description: 25 illustrations, index
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Reginald Horsman is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of eleven other books, including Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America’s First Great Medical Scientist (University of Missouri Press) and, most recently, The New Republic: The United States of America, 1789-1815.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Pt. 1 Forest and Prairie

1 Food in the Forest 9

2 Land of Pork and Corn 32

Pt. 2 Explorers and Trappers

3 Game on Every Side 55

4 Meat and More Meat 81

Pt. 3 Overland Trails

5 Tortillas and Frijoles 107

6 On the Oregon Trail 127

7 Water before Every Door 147

Pt. 4 Gold Rush and the Mines

8 By Land and Sea 171

9 Food at the Mines 195

Pt. 5 Army Life

10 Rank and File 225

11 Officers' Wives 242

Pt. 6 The Travelers

12 Food on the Run 273

Pt. 7 Conquering the Plains

13 Ranch and Chuck Wagon 299

14 Long Horizons 319

Conclusion 341

Index 345

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 29, 2009

    Most of us travel by our stomachs! Worthy reading for entertainment and reference.

    This work makes a point of it. Intresting reading packed with good and valuable information both of foods and travel of the early westward expansion. A valuable resource for those intrested in learning about the American Westward Expansionism or to entertain the Historian in us. This work helps fill in some of the gaps of understanding the Early days of the exploration of the United States.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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