Breakfast Montana–Style in the 1800s

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Department Heritage

Food & Fun

One morning in mid-August, 1805, Meriwether Lewis of President Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery awoke “as hungary [sic] as a wolf.”  Having a scant two pounds of flour left, he had it divided in half and cooked half with berries.  With typically inventive spelling he declared, “On this new fashioned pudding four of us breakfasted, giving a pretty good allowance also to the Chief [Cameahwait] who declared it the best thing he had taisted for a long time.”  This is probably one of Montana’s earliest written breakfast menus.

The tribal people of the future state of Montana ate in the morning if they were hungry and food was available.  The Nez Perce, living principally in Idaho, hunted buffalo east of the Divide.  Their breakfast might simply be whatever was left over from the previous night’s dinner.  Seasonal foods — fish, berries, roots — were preserved. In the fall, they gathered a black moss and baked it with camas bulbs to dry it.  Reconstituted in water, it made a nourishing winter porridge called “hopop.”  

It is axiomatic that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”  This is particularly true if you happen to be a cereal manufacturer.  But in the 1800’s, breakfasts were as varied as the diverse people who consumed them.     

In fact, merely surviving breakfast might have been more important than the nutrition it provided.  Oysters, whiskey, a tarry sludge concocted from dehydrated coffee mixed with chicory and occasionally “extended” with sawdust could not have done much to improve the life expectancy of frontier Americans.  This “coffee essence” was provided to the military during the Civil War years, and gradually evolved into a commercial product called Camp Coffee — though probably without the sawdust. 

On April 1, 1865, the steamboat Bertrand sank into the mud of the Missouri River, north of Omaha, Nebraska.  Its destination had been Fort Benton, Montana Territory.  Had it arrived, much of its cargo would have been taken by ox or mule train to the mining camps of Virginia City and Helena, and the bustling trade center of Deer Lodge.  When the channel of the Missouri changed, the ship was entombed under 30 feet of silt.  Rediscovered in 1968, its recovered cargo included tinned peaches, oysters, tomatoes, honey and coffee essence.  Chemical analysis found them tasteless and colorless, but bacteria-free.  

Eating in the morning was not, of course, an exclusively white occupation. What European culture quite literally brought to the table was the ritualization of mealtimes, including breakfast.   

Montana welcomed many German immigrants, and the mealtime rituals of the “High Germans” were impressive:  Fruestueck (early bit) was followed by a light zweites Fruestueck (second bit) at mid-morning.  Mittagessen was the main meal at mid-day and Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at mid-afternoon were followed by Abendbrot (evening bread) for supper.  At Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, visitors can enjoy the view from the back porch where German cattle baron Conrad Kohrs and his family enjoyed coffee and cake in late afternoon.  The cook must have appreciated the ease of preparing Kohrs’ preferred breakfast of raw hamburger mixed with brandy (steak tartare).  Augusta Kohrs had toast and bacon.

Montana became a state in 1889, and the Territorial Prison became the State Prison.  The breakfast menu wasn’t bad.  In 1890, beef hash, gravy and boiled potatoes were served with bread and coffee.  

Bread and coffee were breakfast standbys throughout the Territory, and on the open range and remote homesteads, it was often sourdough bread.  Sourdough starter, a yeasty mass of fermenting flour, was used to raise biscuit and nearly legendary as open range fare.  Not every chuckwagon cook made sourdoughs for breakfast, however.  “Saleratus” an early (and often contaminated) form of baking soda was also used.  

Pancakes were also popular.  Also known as flapjacks, slapjacks, griddlecakes, hotcakes, and johnnycakes, they were quick and easy and could be cooked as well over a campfire as a wood stove. 

Speaking of johnnycakes, the March 1865 Montana Post reported on a gold miner who passed through Cottonwood (an early name for Deer Lodge) where he had a hearty breakfast at Johnny Grant’s before hurrying off to a rumored gold strike at Ophir Gulch.  The paper neglected to mention if “johnnycakes” were on the menu.  

Raw oysters were also popular in frontier days, and for some unfathomable reason, still are. Half a dozen consumed for breakfast and washed down with an “eye opener” of whisky was not untypical in the early mining towns.  These were not the Rocky Mountain oysters of cattle-raising fame, but the aquatic variety, some tinned and some laboriously packed in ice and brought into the Territory by ox or mule train. Virginia City’s Montana Post told of a lady who asked her physician, “Do you think that raw oysters are healthy?”  “Yes,” he replied.  “I never knew one to complain of being out of health in my life”

Medical advice included an admonition not to smoke or drink in the morning.  One alleged medical practitioner advised, “You can drink more and smoke more in the evening and it will tell on you (hurt you) less.”  Dr. Kellogg, of cereal fame, was a great promoter of healthy eating, and other cereal makers were happy to promote the notion.

Breakfast posed a particular difficulty for inmates planning an escape from the Territorial Prison at Deer Lodge.  Nighttime escapes were typically discovered to be missing at breakfast.  Several inmates escaped in March of 1871, and the first to be recaptured was taken at a stage stop, having breakfast.  Three years later it was found at the morning count that several inmates had “made arrangements to domicile elsewhere.”  They were caught at the Beaver Creek stage station, ordering breakfast.  In 1878, an escape was discovered at the usual time, but apparently the escapee had eaten a hearty supper and successfully avoided recapture.  Stage stations frequently supplied some sort of meal, and passengers had about twenty minutes to order and consume it.  

One review by a guest at the Warm Springs Hotel near Anaconda appeared in the New North West paper of 1872.  “Think of the breakfast,” he wrote, “Coffee, clear, dark and fragrant, flanked with rich cream, biscuits crisped and browned to artistic beauty, opening their hearts to the golden butter; here a juicy steak and a plate-length trout, and there a broiled chicken, while between, the lesser-virtued dainties tempt and triumph.”  

In such an establishment, it would not have been enough to simply stumble sleepy-eyed into the breakfast room.  Certain rituals were involved.  Employees started the guests’ days by waking them with a discreet tap on their door.  Ladies, in particular, were careful to dress becomingly, as social notes in hometown papers often printed their names, described their gowns and even provide their itinerary.  One “accessory” a proper young lady was careful to carry to the breakfast table was a book — the larger the better — as it was deemed a mark of her intelligence.  

After a few cups of coffee essence, a raw oyster or two and a plate full of saleratus-laced biscuits, an intelligent young lady would have been wise to make that a cook book.

 

For Lyndel’s article “Cowboy Cordon Bleu”, see the DM Archives or CLICK HERE!