Judith Sutherland: Pioneer cooking was more work and task than most people know

Before cooking was a hobby, it meant surviving.


Warren would get enough wood for me to cook breakfast and to start dinner, but from then on it was up to me. I wouldn’t have minded chopping wood or getting dinner, if I could have done just one. But they didn’t work so good together. We used coal whenever we had it, which wasn’t too often. It holds heat so much better than wood.

— Eva Eyman DePuy, born 1905, from “Nothing to Tell” by Donna Gray

One of the most interesting things about the pioneers who came before us is the misleading notion that men and their horses worked the land, while women simply kept house and raised children.

Hard work

There was nothing simple about any of it. There had to have been extraordinary teamwork just to survive. Long ago I interviewed a retired farm woman, a widow who had married in 1919.

She said she really wasn’t sure if hers was a happy marriage.

“Hmmm, well I’m not so clear on how to think on that question,” she said. I don’t believe we ever had the time to really think on it that much.”

Focussed on survival

When she described the Michigan farm they worked and the small, four-room home in which they nearly froze to death together every winter while raising 9 children, I came to understand there wasn’t much time to think on anything but survival.

And as if the house wasn’t small enough, in the dead of winter the family all stayed in the kitchen around the clock. Just the daily food alone would have taken enormous planning and effort.

Add to that the need to keep a fire going just right, hot enough to bake bread but not too hot to burn the day’s meal. I have thought so many times I should never ever complain about figuring out a simple menu.


In Donna Gray’s collection of stories of Montana ranch women, Eva Eyman DePuy tells, “I can’t say I was a very good cook, but we survived. I can think of a lot of other things I’d rather do. You didn’t mind so much cooking for hired help until they started complaining, and then you felt like taking a frying pan to their heads.”

She added that one hired hand got fired for rudeness toward her cooking. I would bet that no child in those little old homes complained about not liking potatoes done a certain way without getting set straight.

The drive to survive would have made our drive-through pickiness of today, along with a child’s meltdown when things don’t taste quite right, look ridiculously inexcusable.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.



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