Mining History by Harold Hough

When we hear stories about onions costing 1/20 of an ounce of gold in the Yukon or a meal of beans being half a day’s wages, it’s easy to think that gold miners and prospectors of the Old West had poor diets. However, many nutritionists think that for their lifestyle, miners and prospectors had more healthy diets than many modern Americans.

Since the cost of food at the gold fields was so high, most experienced prospectors took to the trail with as many provisions as they could. Since they were limited to what they could carry on their back or a pack mule, their food was portable and unlikely to spoil. They also didn’t have the luxury of carrying “junk” food that most modern American like.

Today, experts say we should limit our fat intake to no more than 20% - 30% of our caloric intake. However, that assumption is based on the average lifestyle of the modern American. The old time prospector was hardly a couch potato.

Sports nutritionists now know that during extended periods of exertion (like 12 straight hours of using a pickax), over 50% of the body’s energy is produced by burning fat - the body’s preferred fuel. Consequently, the high fat diets of 150 years ago weren’t as dangerous because the muscles would burn the fatty acids circulating in the blood system. The remaining energy needs were provided by complex carbohydrates found in grains. Therefore, the simple diet rich in carbohydrates and fatty meats at least provided the energy for a long day’s work, even if it lacked some of the vitamins we now recognize as necessary.

No food was more important than flour. According to contemporary records, the average miner in the Yukon used about 500 pounds of flour per year (about 1 and 1/3 loaves a day). In many cases, this was the bulk of what he consumed each day. The most common uses were in sourdough bread and hardtack.

After flour, beans were the most popular staple for the prospector. Not only were they nutrient rich, they could last for years. Although the miners didn’t know it then, beans also provided as good mix of carbohydrates and several essential amino acids.

Beans were versatile. The imaginative cook could use them as a meat substitute or even as the base for fudge or flour. However, most miners stuck with simple cooked beans. 110 years ago, the average meal for the Yukon miners was bread, beans (with bacon), and coffee.

Although miners loved a good steak, meat was scarce and a small, tough steak could cost ¼ ounce of gold. Consequently, most miners stuck to bacon, which was an excellent accompaniment to beans and didn’t spoil. Bacon was also an important part of a miner’s equipment because the greasy rind could be wrapped around the bearing of a winch, where it provided lubrication.

Chicken was a popular meat and more common than beef. Fried chicken was not only tasty, but served as a way to keep chicken edible for a longer time without refrigeration. The cooked outer layer of flour and fat acted as a barrier for bacteria after the chicken was thoroughly cooked inside. Consequently, cold, fried chicken would last longer than normal cooked chicken. And, that fat helped a body during a long day of hard work.

Since regular meat was so scarce, wild meat like rabbit was popular. Jerky was also popular, but not for snacks because it was too expensive. It was used to make gravy that could be poured over potatoes, biscuits, or hardtack.

Milk was also as scarce as beef, and spoiled faster. Fortunately, there had been a recent discovery that made safe milk a common and accepted food. In 1857 Mr. Gail Borden had discovered that canned, condensed milk with enough sugar stopped bacterial growth. However, it didn’t catch on until 1861, when the Union Army started purchasing sweetened condensed milk for army field rations. Since many post Civil War miners were veterans, they knew they could enjoy milk or foods with milk in it far from the nearest cow.

Since scurvy was a constant threat and regular vegetables and fruits commanded high prices, many creative cooks relied on greens. One popular recipe was dandelion greens cooked in butter, cheese, milk, and flour.

Of course, what would a mining camp be without booze? If there wasn’t a saloon nearby, the enterprising miner could make some passable hooch with sourdough starter, rice, sugar, and dried apples. Everything would be poured into a barrel, along with water and left to ferment for about a week. The liquid would then be poured off after the bubbling stopped and then distilled to increase the alcoholic content.

Although the Old West mining days are long gone, the tradition does carry over to today’s supermarket. The miner’s favorite bread, sourdough, is a unique American food and is still found in the bakery section. Pork and beans remain a popular side dish (especially when camping or picnicking) and jerky is a staple in the snack aisle even if it isn’t used to make gravy anymore.