Foods of the pioneers – like prairie chickens

By MARY WEAVERMary Weaver Profile
RIPPEY, Iowa, Aug. 2, 2016
— Many of you know that I am interested in the early historical development of Greene County, with a combined interest of a woman’s life on the prairie. I have researched Mary Davis, wife of Truman Davis, and read other documents about early pioneer women settlers.

Mary and Truman Davis came to Greene County in a prairie schooner in the fall of 1849. Mary was 36 and Truman was 39. They had six children, ages 2 to 16. Iowa had become a state in 1846, but Greene County was a part of a large area then called Dallas County. After our population reached 150, we officially became identified as Greene County in 1851.

In reading diaries written by settlers who came to the area that would become Greene County, we learn women were the backbone of the family; the guardian of the family food supply, and producer of foods. They served as the family seamstress, knitting factory, doctor, teacher, and a good Samaritan to neighbors and newcomers.A prairie chicken

We know the Davis Family had to be self-sufficient, as the nearest town was Pierce’s Point, which is now Adel, and it just had one general store. The nearest mill was four miles south of Fort Des Moines, about 65 miles from their home. About every six weeks, a Reverend Cadwalader rode on horseback from Des Moines. He would bring the Davises’ mail and sometimes flour.

Prairie chickens were abundant in the tall swaying grasses of Greene County. They became extinct as the land become tilled for crops, removing the grasses. The “greater prairie chickens” are a type of grouse, and they seemed to be everywhere. Called “boomers” because of the noise made during their mating ritual, they were from 16 to 19 inches in height and weighed two to three pounds. In the attached picture the booming noise is made by the male puffing out the yellow sac at the bottom of their throat. During the mating cycle the booming noise they made could be heard up to one mile.

Artist depictions of prairie chickens show them in a large covey, up to 200. Prairie chickens did not migrate though they were strong flyers, and research indicates they might travel up to 30 miles in search of wintering grounds with a reliable food source.

They were not threatened by severe winter weather. When the snow was thick they “dove” into the snow to keep warm, and could have easily been plucked from the snow by Truman Davis or one of his boys.

We have to assume that Mary Davis knew how to butcher and prepare a prairie chicken. She most likely used a recipe like the following, from a turn of the century cook book:

“After butchering the chicken (writer’s note: “by plucking off the feathers and removing the chicken’s insides”), boil the chicken in hot water until it is tender in all the joints. Remove the breast, and rub with butter, salt, and pepper, and again boil briskly. Remove and rub butter on each piece of the chicken, and cook in the oven in a hot fire for a short period of time”.Expect the meat to be very dark.

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