Pacific Northwest | July 6, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 6, home
Home delivery
Search archive
Contact us

Lewis & Clark

Repasts of the Past
Explorers of the frontier never had it so good
The handwritten font used for the quotations in "The Lewis and Clark Cookbook" was created from a sample of President Thomas Jefferson's handwriting. The color plates, including this one of the Pacific salmon, were drawn from a variety of 19th-century sources.
IF IT WERE called "The Lewis and Jefferson Cookbook," Leslie Mansfield's "The Lewis & Clark Cookbook, Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery" might make more sense. After all, Jefferson had a house and a garden. But even then, some of the elaborate recipes in this fanciful collection might raise an eyebrow. As it is, the book is more like a reverie than an account of what the explorers actually ate. For Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the band of approximately 30 men they led to the Pacific Ocean and back at the dawn of the 19th century, food was a matter of survival; and the recipes in this book are involved preparations in a style that few people enjoyed in the best of times, let alone in the wilderness.

Charbonneau's Boudin Blanc Terrine, Chicken Capitolade, Mocha Cream Pie? Such luxuries were certainly conceivable at Monticello, but on the frontier? No way. Judging by excerpts from Lewis' journals, it seems more likely that plain meat, boiled or broiled, was the mainstay of the corps, and luxuries like flour and cornmeal were doled out along the way like candy. If they hadn't been supplemented by whatever the men could shoot or gather (thousands of animals, gallons of maple syrup made from sap in the spring of 1805, various roots and shoots purchased from Indians) the stores they carried would have lasted little more than six weeks. And the journey took more than two years.

Long before they reached the Pacific Northwest, the original supplies of flour, cornmeal, biscuits, beans, peas and coffee were gone. Lewis was on his last pound of flour by July of 1805 when he boiled some of it in water and served it to Chief Cameahwait of the Shoshone. The chief said the simple pudding was one of the best things he had eaten in a long time.

 Grilled Maple-Glazed Salmon
 Recent recipes in Pacific Northwest

Chocolate-Chip Meringues

Sparkling lemonade
Still, the kinds of food described in Mansfield's book would have been familiar to Meriwether Lewis. Lewis grew up in a well-run household near Monticello, the president's home in Virginia, which was, according to Food Arts magazine editor Michael Batterberry, "an American Eden." The variety of foodstuffs grown there was probably unsurpassed even at the most productive farms today. Arugula, for example, "and six kinds of broccoli (some from Palermo and Florence), sun-dried tomatoes, radicchio, nasturtiums, salsify, endive, pomegranates, sesame seed, Savoy cabbage, Tuscan garlic, saffron, more than two dozen varieties of lettuce (including a certain ice-cabbage lettuce, which sounds suspiciously familiar), Marseilles figs and Italian fennel, which Jefferson said was his favorite vegetable, although probably a close tie with the infinite variety of peas he planted."

According to Batterberry, Jefferson catalogued cookery volumes in French, English and Latin under the heading "Technical Arts." Jefferson also had a natural gastronome's appreciation of the arts of the table. When he was minister to France, he accompanied his chef to the market and offered regular advice on the menus.

So when, in the spring of 1801, he took Lewis under his wing to tutor him in preparation for the journey that would become a pivotal point in American history, much of the education took place at the table. According to Stephen Ambrose in "Undaunted Courage, Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," "Lewis took his meals with the president, and was almost always present when he entertained, which was four or five nights a week. . .

"The talk flowed freely, on any subject that interested Jefferson, which meant practically all subjects." Under the president's tutelage, Lewis, already an accomplished soldier and woodsman, was schooled in philosophy, literature, history and politics, and was exposed to some of the finest food and wine of the times.

So, wilderness fare must have been quite an adjustment.

When they reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1805, the corps saw the salmon run and did not understand that the salmon were dying because they were spawning. In "Going Along with Lewis and Clark," Barbara Fifer notes that even though they saw the fish being eaten by the local Indians, the explorers were dubious. They assumed that the dying fish were diseased and traded beads for dog meat to avoid having to eat the salmon. Actually, all the men except Clark, whose pet dog accompanied the men on the journey, grew fond of dog meat. "I have become so perfectly reconciled to dog meat," wrote Lewis, "that I think it an agreeable food and would prefer it vastly to lean venison or elk."

Mansfield's cookbook does not include recipes for dog, but it does have some good salmon recipes.

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island.

Today Archive

Advanced search

advertising home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company


Back to topBack to top