What did a Mountain Man eat? Meat, meat and more meat! Or, conversely, whatever there happened to be to eat! Food stuff was often salted or dried to preserve it, so cooking consisted of attempting to make the food palatable. And if it wasn’t, they ate it anyway. Imagine a daily diet of bacon, salt pork, smoked ham, dried or corned beef, smoked, salted, and dried fish, and the occasional fresh game. Other staples included biscuits, pancakes, fry and corn bread with the occasional bean, hominy, rice and peas to round out the food pyramid. It’s a good thing Mountain Men were always on the move!
Mountain Men might eat the same foods, day after day, for months at a time. There was no room for being fastidious or finicky. Journals of the Mountain Man often mention eating such things as moccasins, saddles or rawhide straps during the lean moments. Maybe that’s where the myth came about that Mountain Men softened their leather by chewing it?
Canned goods were first produced in 1813 for the English military, and 20 years later were provided in British grocery stores, but canned goods in the West didn’t really come about until the California Gold Rush in 1849. The first show of any canned goods at a Rendezvous was in 1837 when Sir William Drummond Stewart brought sardines.
Buffalo was probably the biggest staple of the Mountain Men diet. Fat cow was generally the most desirable, however, poor bull was acceptable in lean times. In his journal, Osborne Russell describes the preparation of “poor bull”, by Jim Bridger’s party. He writes,“It would doubtless be amusing to a disinterested spectator to witness the process of cooking poor Bull meat as practiced by this camp during the winter of 1835-6. On going through the camp at any time in the day heaps of ashes might be seen with the fire burning on the summit and an independent looking individual who is termed a Camp Keeper sitting with a “two year old club” in his hand watching the pile with as much seeming impatience as Philoctete did the burning of Hercules. At length poking over the ashes with his club he rolls out a ponderous mass of Bull beef and hitting it a rap with his club it bounds 5 or 6 feet from the ground like a huge ball of gum elastic. This operation frequently repeated divests it of the ashes adhering to it and prepares it for carving. He then drops his club and draws his butcher knife, calling to his comrades.”
Portions of the intestine of Buffalo were filled with wild onions and other herbs and spices, tied off and roasted until sizzling. Called Boudins these “sausages” were considered a delicacy and were always a favorite, while also providing vitamins and nutrients otherwise lacking in a diet composed largely of red meat.
Pemmican is made with a combination of dried meat, dried fruit, and rendered grease. The dried meat and fruit are pounded to very fine particles or meal. Just enough hot grease is poured over the mixture of meat and fruit to moisten it. The mixture is then packed into a skin sack or bladder. It was the Mountain Man “Power Bar” and a source of high energy food, easily transported or carried, that wouldn’t spoil for months on the trail.
The Mountain Men ate most of their food without any seasoning at all. Spices, however, were shipped to rendezvous, and for at least limited times after rendezvous, must have been available for seasoning foods. Spices known to have been packed to rendezvous included: sugar; salt; pepper and allspice. Salt for seasoning or for curing hides could also be obtained from salt springs and salt deposits found at some localities in the western mountains.
When available, coffee and tea were the preferred drinks of the Mountain Man. Large quantities of both were shipped to the mountains for rendezvous. Milk was sometimes available at forts or posts, or from the semi-wild cattle that roamed ranches in Mexico and the southwest. Then there is Mountain Cider, Bitters and High Wine. Google them if you would like to be disgusted.
Alcohol was an important element in the fur trade from its origins in the earliest 1600’s through the end of the era in the 1840’s. During the rendezvous period (and earlier) all distilled liquors were colorless. Large profits were assured through use of alcohol prior and during trading with the fur gathers, whether they were free trappers, company men or Indians. Alcohol packed to rendezvous was extremely high proof. Once at rendezvous or trading post, the alcohol was generally diluted with water at a ratio of 1:2 or 1:4 or even more. This increased the volume of the product and profits.
Interested in the origin of the term, “Firewater?” In order to test the potency of a liquor, a mountain man, or Indian would dash some of the liquid on the campfire. If the fire roared up, it was determined to be the good stuff. If the fire was doused, it was determined that the liquor had been too diluted. This, however, may also be one of those mountain man myths.