Eat Like a Nebraskan Pioneer

Know your food, know yourself


Farm-to-table is a huge trend right now in Omaha restaurants. People want to know what’s in their food, where it came from, and how long it’s been sitting around before it made it to their plate. It’s certainly smart to know more about your food before you shove it in your mouth, but what you may not realize is that Nebraskans from years past already had this idea in their head. Sustainable, real food was the name of the game for the people who farmed this land long before we all came along.

Christianna Reinhardt knows a lot about how the pioneer farmers in Nebraska ate. Her book “A Culinary History of the Nebraska Sand Hills: Recipes and Recollections from Prairie Kitchens” not only provides some recipes so we city-dwellers can pretend to cook like pioneers, but it also includes a bunch of history about how pioneers in Nebraska ate and treated their food.

Waste not, want not

“Waste is a four-letter word in the Sand Hills of Nebraska,” says Reinhardt, “but it’s not necessarily unique to the Sand Hills. I think any rural area has an element of utility, but I noticed far more ‘master’ recipes pop up in oral history or in recipe books in the Sand Hills. Everything in the kitchen has a multiple use or purpose. An example is a master dough recipe that could make bread, rolls or a sweet pastry, all from the same basic dough.”  

Meals served a purpose for our Nebraskan ancestors, much like they do for today’s modern-day famers. “Plates in the Sand Hills are hearty, filling meals, full of protein and carbs,” describes Reinhardt, undoubtedly making the anti-carb folks shudder. But if you’re spending 12 to 14 hours a day working on a farm, you probably don’t have to watch your calories as closely as everyone else. “It’s a never-ending cycle of physical work, and that environment creates the need for a lot of calories on the table. Servings are large.”

Put down the microwave meal

Reinhardt studied what pioneers ate to get a window into their lives. “A home-cooked meal can be one of the clearest windows into a culture, and is one of the daily, simple acts of sharing. The ingredients tell us so much about what is available and about the evolution of the collective palate in the area. It tells us what people appreciate enough to share with others.”

“Everything on the table tells a story,” she continues. “Whether it’s served on grandma’s plates, or if it’s the pork from the family’s hog butchered last year, getting that meal to the table will tell some story if you’re inquisitive enough to ask.”

Speaking of butchering….

As a historian and cook, Reinhardt suggests that all meat-eaters, at some point in their lives, need to take on the task of preparing meat from start to finish. “That means taking a live animal, recognizing its life, killing and preparing it,” she says. “That connection is where I believe we truly realize the value of life and that none of it should go to waste. Buying meat in a package creates a detachment between the consumer and the animal.”

If you’re not quite ready to start slaughtering pigs, appreciating your food is a good start. Although food is abundant for most of us, it’s good to pause and think about what the food situation was in Nebraska many years ago. “Pioneers survived unimaginable hardships,” says Reinhardt. “Over the winter when the meat ran out and there were only root vegetable left in the cellar, men and women would take to fishing, trapping turtles or any rodents available to have sustenance.”

After talking to Reinhardt and checking out the book her publsher sent me, I feel even more compelled to examine where my food comes from and to strive to run a more sustainable kitchen in my own home, but mostly I’m just really glad I’m not a pioneer.  Rodents? No thanks.

Reinhardt’s book “A Culinary History of the Nebraska Sand Hills: Recipes and Recollections from Prairie Kitchens” is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.


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