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Have You Ever Tried Ashcakes?

8 minute read
Joel Stein/Bozeman

We know from the internet that everything has its freaks. There are freaks for Legos, for presidential graves and for women who kill rodents with stiletto heels. But with the Internet, you always suspect that these people are half ironic, that part of their fun is pretending to be obsessed. The Lewis and Clark fanatics, for the most part, do not build fan sites.

I went to meet some of these people when my editors decided they’d like me to eat the kind of food that Lewis and Clark ate. This was not the subtlest of the many ways in which they have tried to kill me, but it’s a soft job market. I talked to Leandra Holland, a woman writing a book on the food history of Lewis and Clark and the author of “Preserving Food on the Trail,” a recent cover story in We Proceeded On, the journal for serious Lewis and Clark obsessives. Holland and some of her L&C buddies set up a big cookout for me. I was to be the first person ever to fly to Bozeman, Mont., expressly for a meal.

My editors, though, are wimps. They were afraid that my pursuit of historical accuracy–killing a buffalo with a black-powder musket, for instance–would upset you. They were also concerned about the law, in terms of eating animals like grizzly bear, beaver, horse and whale. Worst of all, they certainly weren’t going to let me eat dog. The Corps of Discovery reached the Upper Columbia during the run of the fall Chinook and coho salmon. But instead of eating the fish, they bought the local tribes’ dogs for butchering. Bill Yallup Jr., a descendant of Lewis and Clark’s West Coast host Chief Yellept, says of the explorers’ eating habits, “All this wonderful salmon everywhere, and along come Lewis and Clark to our village. Two days later, they leave again, and we’re looking around, and our people are saying ‘Hey, what happened to all our dogs?'”

When I get to Bozeman, I meet Holland, her husband and eight other Lewis-and-Clarkheads at a neighbor’s property, where we put up an American flag and set up a campfire right beside the East Gallatin River. R.G. Montgomery, a retired biology teacher who gives lessons on Lewis and Clark and does the occasional bit of re-enacting, shows up in period dress–moccasins, a red kerchief over his head–carrying a box of reproduction supplies. Since the Corps of Discovery is the ultimate Boy Scout story, most of these guys, all of whom are grandparents, are only recently retired from the troop. They have a fire going in four minutes.

Like any other group of the obsessed, Lewis-and-Clarkheads like to display their obscure knowledge by arguing over factoids, which creates a menu issue. There is a bitter disagreement over how much meat the explorers ate each day. One camp sticks to the commonly believed nine-pounds-a-day-per-person theory, while the other camp puts its estimates closer to three. Philosophically, the nine-pounders are vested in the fantasy that the explorers were dreamy, testosterone-packed macho men, while the three-pounders like to believe they were more like themselves. Leandra is firmly in the nine-pound group.

Since she is in charge, we have a nine-pound chunk of buffalo hump, which Lewis and Clark considered the best part of the animal. This is because it’s the fattiest part. Lewis and Clark loved the fat. “The general rule on the hunt was, the fattier the better. They were on the original Atkins diet,” Leandra says. With that, she dips three fingers into a container of freshly rendered pig fat and licks them. There must be cultures where this is a mating ritual.

I get down on the grass and cut up salt pork–which is essentially really, really fatty unsmoked bacon–for a stew, using a split log as my cutting board. I don’t know exactly how this stew will taste, but I am pretty sure it will include toothpicks. While I am chopping, I take my first bite of hardtack, the unspoilable bread substance the corps took with them. It’s whole wheat flour, salt, water and a drop of butter, baked very crisp. And it’s delicious, like a health-food-store wheat cracker. It would go great with goat cheese or pate. This last comment doesn’t endear me to my new friends.

I put the splintery salt pork in a pot with some cornmeal, sage and water to make what my new friends call “Pork and Cornmeal Stew” and what I call “Fatty Fat Fat.” Actually, it isn’t that bad. This is the first of many demonstrations that anything made with pork fat tastes good. The corps mostly used bear grease, but pork grease, Leandra figures, is a close approximation, and I get the feeling she knows what she’s talking about. By the end of the afternoon, I have eaten more lard than I have eaten altogether in my entire previous life.

We also make a stew out of venison chunks rolled in flour and cooked in pork fat, to which we add water and pearl onions. This is really good–thick and hearty and richly gravied, the onions adding a sweetness to the tender chunks of venison. I fry up some trout rolled in cornmeal and flour in a mess of pig fat: awesome–crisp on the outside and soft and buttery inside. We put some grouse coated in cornmeal in a pan of pork fat: a winner. We find some morels on the property, which we combine with onions and cook in a wash of pork fat: very nice.

The worst thing we eat is ashcakes. I mix cornmeal with a bit of salt and water, form patties and slap them onto a rock in the middle of the fire, which allows them to be covered with yummy carcinogenic ash. They are perhaps the driest things I have ever eaten–and as a child I would often be caught eating sand at the beach. “Oh Lordy, that’s dry. It sucks the tissues out of your mouth,” says retired plant ecologist Jack Taylor, after putting up a good fight with one.

We split the nine-pound buffalo hump into two pieces and roast one in a Dutch oven set on the bottom of the fire and skewer the other on a metal pole laid over the fire. Both techniques produce a dry version of buffalo, which tastes a whole lot like beef, if a tiny bit tougher and leaner. It would be much better grilled, but it is still pretty good. It also might be better if Leandra hadn’t insisted on putting a pile of dried buffalo dung into the fire right under it.

We drop a buffalo tongue, an L&C fave, into a pot of boiling water. It isn’t great–a little too soft and chewy and bland. I figure that the explorers’ cooking styles were weakened by the restraints of the campfire, until I realize that their limited preparation techniques were owing to the fact that they were only one generation away from being British.

We eat all our food out of cups, Lewis and Clark-style, and basically use our hands. For dessert, as if the ashcakes aren’t enough, we take some flour and water and add a few raspberries and–for reasons I have trouble imagining have anything to do with historical accuracy–Craisins. We put this in a pan with little round cutouts. They come out like dense, doughy pancakes–not bad at all.

We each do a shot of whiskey, which the explorers drank approximately biweekly until they ran out, and then the speeches are made. Beth Merrick, exhibits director at the Museum of the Rockies, makes some sort of speech about discovery and friendship, ending with me, photographer Chip Simons and the property owners receiving Jefferson Peace and Friendship medals, which are nickels hung on red-white-and-blue ribbon. Then Merrick passes around a two-page lyric sheet and proceeds to lead the group in a version of Yankee Doodle Dandy with lyrics about our adventure: “Joel and Chip, they came to town/To photograph a story,/Of Lewis and Clark and what they ate/In unknown territory!” and “First here, then there, most anywhere/ Shall we hold our little banquet/Where shall we meet to eat our feast/Of bison hump brochette?” It is 11 stanzas long. I deeply consider just handing it in as my story.

Luckily, a storm approaches, so we have to decamp quickly. Many ashcakes are lost. The nine-plus pounds of leftovers are taken to Leandra’s house, where she, her husband and the photographer enjoy them the next night, while I make up some excuse and expense a $50 meal at my hotel, with two glasses of a very nice American white called the Caymus Conundrum. The photographer tells me that pig fat just isn’t the same a day later. My body says different. –With reporting by Nathan Thornburgh

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