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What’s Cooking – Fish and Fowl

chickenJune 25, 2019

Pork is the meat most associated with modern Midwestern culture, but it certainly isn’t the only one! Through Iowa’s history, both fish and poultry have been active meal ingredients. This week Living History Farms’ food historians demonstrate some of the ways fish and fowl were prepared in the past. Iowa boasts over 140 species of native fish, including catfish, perch, walleye, and brook trout. Wild birds, such as grouse and turkeys, and then later, domestic poultry such as chicken, offer a wide variety of fowl for the Iowa table. Eggs, the valuable by-product of poultry, were essential to farm incomes later in the 19th century. This week, the historic sites present many of the ways fish, poultry, and eggs were harvested and prepared. Tuesday, June 25, visit the Flynn Mansion for a peek at a high-style Victorian Fish course and fried oysters at the 1900 Farm. The 1700 Ioway Farm will be roasting meat in an open fire on Thursday, June 27. On Friday, June 28, several sites will highlight egg recipes, including a “from scratch” custard. Saturday, June 29, the 1850 Pioneer Farm shows off the best in hearth cooking technology by roasting chicken in a “tin kitchen” roaster. Visit the 1900 Farm all week for a look at poultry breeds in the 19th century era! Visit the Print Shop on Saturday to print a chicken engraving!

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“What’s Cooking” Program Presenting Sponsor – Hy-Vee

Ioway Native American farmers did not raise domestic chickens, but actively hunted wild prairie chickens (grouse). The Ioway prepared the meat spit-roasted over an open fire or in stews. Naturalists estimate that Ioway lands were once home to hundreds of thousands of prairie chickens! Grouse became nearly extinct in Iowa due to the loss of their prairie habitat. Statewide, the current Iowa grouse population is less than 75 birds, most in the Kellerton Grasslands Preserve near Mt. Ayr, Iowa. By the 19th century, pioneers brought domestic chickens with them for meat and eggs.

chickensPopular early chicken breeds were hardy and dual purpose, good for both meat and eggs– such as the black and white striped Dominique. After 1860, farmers began raising “fancy” breeds such as Cochins and Brahmas, Polish topknots and speckled Wyandottes. By 1900, Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds were established flock members. Farm women and children were often in charge of chicken keeping, tending birds and gathering eggs. Chicken was a common meat on the farm table because of its size and ease of harvesting. The poultry could be processed by one person and consumed by the family the same day. Chicken could be fried, baked, roasted, and stewed. Leftover meat was made into pies, croquettes, and hash or served with noodles.

fish covered in clayFishing has been both a necessity and a leisure activity throughout Iowa’s history. The Ioway and other native cultures fished Iowa’s rivers with both bone fish hooks and spears. Fish could be baked or stewed when caught, or the meat could be dried for long-term preservation. The Ioway often baked fish in the coals of cooking fires. The cook would split open the fish (leaving scales on) and remove internal organs out of the fish. After closing the two halves back together, the cook would completely encase the outside in clay. She would then place the clay-coated fish at the edge of the fire and surround it with hot coals. After a couple hours the clay would start to crack, letting the cook know the fish was done. When clay was cracked open, the scales stayed in the clay as the cooked pulled the meat off the bones.

19th century Iowa settlers also dried, smoked, and salted native fish for winter preservation. Fishing could help feed the pioneer family. By the later 1800s, fishing was also something Iowa farming families did for fun! In his diary in May 1873, seventeen year old Oliver Myers wrote that he and a friend spent three days hunting and fishing for fun. On May 20, “Charlie Payne went with me down to Willis We killed 14 pigeons and caught 12 fish weighing about 30 to 40 lbs.” Many of the native species of fish and fowl enjoyed by pre-1850 Iowans are now struggling with loss of habitat, pollution, and introduction of invasive non-native species.

oyster dishes at Flynn MansionRailroads again allowed Iowans to enjoy eating some non-native species of both fish and fowl. The Victorian American had a passion for oysters, salmon, and duck in their fine dining. Oysters could be sent fresh, packed on ice by transcontinental railroad. Smoked and canned, oysters were perfect for soups, salads and picnic foods. Freshwater salmon was already being raised in hatcheries in the Midwest by the 1870s and shipped by rail. In multi-course dinners, hostesses served a fish course, often with a butter or cream sauce and potatoes on the side. This example from the Presbyterian Cookbook, 1873, is a great example.

Boil a nice fresh fish; pick out all the bones, and season highly with white pepper and salt. Mix one-quarter pound of flour smoothly with one quart of milk; put in five very small onions, a bunch of parsley, a sprig of thyme, one teaspoonful of salt, and one-half teaspoonful of white pepper. Place over a quick fire, and stir all the time until it forms a thick paste, then take off and put in one-half pound of butter and the yolks of two eggs. Mix all together and pass through a sieve. Pour some of this sauce into a baking dish, and add a layer of fish and sauce alternately, until it is all used. The sauce must be on top, with bread crumbs and cheese. Bake in a moderate oven half an hour.


fried oystersFried Oysters

Drain the oysters carefully and sprinkle with pepper and salt, take each oyster separately, if large enough, or, if not, take two, and roll first in cracker dust and then in beaten egg mixed with a little milk, also seasoned with pepper and salt, dip again in the cracker and fry in butter and hot lard. – Mrs. B.F. Jaques

Culture Club Cookbook 1900: A Vintage Cookbook, originally published in 1900 Greene County, Iowa


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1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   Flynn Mansion   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes   What’s Cooking

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