MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Fort Gibson

November 30, 2011

One for the Oklahoma history book

— Regardless of where Oklahoma’s early settlers, other pioneers and soldiers originally came from, they had to bring food, prepare it along the way and find ways to produce it or acquire it after arriving. Their dining habits and taste preferences were passed to later generations despite changing cooking facilities.

“Our recipes, menus, ceremonies and etiquette are directly shaped by our country’s rich immigrant experience, the history and innovations of food preparation technology, and the ever-changing availability of key ingredients,” said Kathy Dickson, director of Oklahoma Historical Society Museums and Sites. “Food is at the center of traditions, celebrations, holidays and cultures.”

Because food history is relevant to everyone, it was chosen by the Smithsonian Institution for the Museums on Main Street traveling exhibition program. This exhibit, “Key Ingredients,” will be presented at the Fort Gibson Historic Site from 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 11 through Jan. 21, 2012.

A companion exhibit, “Feeding the Troops,” will feature food used by the 19th century U.S. military, said Fort Gibson Historic Site Manager Chris Morgan. Candlelight Tour pass holders will enjoy a sneak preview of “Key Ingredients” on the evening of Dec. 10, said Morgan.

“A large part of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s artifact collections are food related,” said Historical Society Executive Director Dr. Bob Blackburn. “The list is long and full of endless variety, including pots, pans, utensils, glassware, measuring cups, spoons, graters, flour sifters, pie safes, stoves, ice boxes and hooiser cabinets where flour was stored and ready to be sifted.

“In addition to the ‘Key Ingredients’ exhibit at Fort Gibson, visitors can enjoy exhibits such as the 1950s pink kitchen at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, a historic chuckwagon at the Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus, a cook wagon for harvest crews at the Chisholm Trail Museum in Kingfisher, kitchen appliances at the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, and a historic kitchen at the Fred Drummond House in Hominy — all OHS sites and museums.”

The pink kitchen exhibit is a replica of an existing kitchen in the Nichols Hills home of an OHS member.

It features a pink stove, refrigerator, washing machine and dryer from the 1950s era, said Sherry Massey, senior registrar at the Oklahoma Museum of History.

Innovations of the 1950s are highlighted along with food packaging by Griffins, Shawnee Mills and Vans Bakery, all Oklahoma companies.

An exhibit of a much older time can be enjoyed at the George M. Murrell House near Park Hill, where a noodle cutter can bring back memories of those wonderful homemade noodles from grandmother’s kitchen, said Dickson.

“A meat cleaver can bring up family stories of hog butchering with the lard rendering and crackling cornbread that followed,” Dickson said. “Each of us has our own food memories just waiting to be refreshed at our Oklahoma museums and historic sites.”

Visitors can learn about chuckwagon history at the Museum of the Western Prairie in Altus. A detailed description of what it was like to provide food in a chuckwagon for cowhands trailing a herd of cattle from south Texas through Oklahoma to the railheads in Kansas during the 19th century was provided by Jennie Buchanan, director of the Altus site.

 Charles Goodnight, a Texas rancher, is credited with inventing the chuckwagon in 1866. “Using a surplus army wagon, Goodnight designed a ‘chuck box’ to fit on the back of the wagon,” said Buchanan. “The box was a modified cabinet with drawers and cubbyholes. It also had a hinged cover that was lowered to stand on a leg (or legs) as a worktable for the cook.

‘Chuck’ was a slang word for food. The wagon’s bed was used to carry provisions for the trail, including bedrolls, medicine, water, firewood, pots, pans, guns and food supplies.”  The cook had “absolute authority over his wagon and everything that pertained to it,” said Buchanan. He was often an older cowboy who no longer could ride, but his wages often were about twice that of other hands.

“It was said that ‘only a fool argues with a skunk, a mule or a cook,’” Buchanan added. “He was often the first to rise in the morning and the last to retire (except for cowboys who watched the herd overnight).”

Chuckwagon food included items easy to preserve, such as salted meats, coffee, rice and sourdough biscuits. Food also was gathered along the trail. Each morning the cook built a fresh fire and set Dutch ovens where they would heat.

Early portable cook stoves and large kerosene ranges can be viewed at the No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell. Included are monkey stoves that bachelor settlers and cowboys carried with them, using buffalo and cow chips for fuel. These small portable cast iron stoves were employed for cooking and heating but were upgraded to cooking stoves when the pioneers set up households.

Visitors can compare their modern kitchen conveniences with early-day culinary artifacts and practices, said Blackburn, when they visit “Key Ingredients” at Fort Gibson and other exhibits of historic food and cooking facilities at the museums and sites of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

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