On the American frontier, thrift was not only a necessity but also a philosophy of day-to-day living and survival. At the German Pietists’ 26,000-acre Amana Colonies east of Iowa City, Iowa, the women who ran the 50 community kitchens followed thrift to another level, cooking three meals a day, as well as two snack breaks, for the communal village where all resources and property were shared. – Courtesy NYPL Digital Collections, 1907 –

Old West cooks were magicians in the kitchen when it came to making the most of leftovers.

Frugal frontier cooks often turned their kitchen leftovers into amazing dishes, and many housewives prided themselves on creating unique recipes with them. Various newspaper stories included tips and recipes on how they could do this, which stretched even the smallest of morsels.

Of course, most turned leftover meat pieces, parts and bones into stock for soups, but that was the easiest repurpose. Many leftover scraps of meat and vegetables were turned into soups, too. What happens when you mix leftover corned beef or breakfast bacon, an egg, cold mashed potatoes, flour, and onion and parsley? Crispy golden fried croquettes, naturally! A ragout was another tasty leftover meal that was created using bone broth, chicken pieces, cold rice, dressing, onions and flour and served over fried bread.

Stale or poorly cooked bread was often used to make bread crumbs and bread pudding. Stale cookies were used to make puddings. The Abilene Gazette in Kansas wrote this in 1885: “To those who think this close watching and saving of ‘left-overs’ has an appearance of meanness or stinginess…let it be said, “it takes judgment, taste, and skill to prepare a ragout, a salmi, or a really good scallop.”

Cold mashed potatoes were turned into purees or molded, cut, dipped in flour and fried in butter. Other tips suggested that cooks use mushroom stems to make a sauce Bordelaise for steak, turn leftover tomatoes into a sauce for chops, use soured milk in Johnny cakes and toss random vegetables to create a salad. Egg yolks, leftover from an angel food cake, were turned into a custard or sunshine cake. Leftover egg whites from a custard were made into a mayonnaise or angel food cake. Unused canned fruits or juices were transformed into a roly-poly pudding or frozen ice.

Women on the American frontier were all taught early on “waste not, want not,” and were encouraged to apply the most thrifty business practices to running a household. The ideals of thrift in the homestead kitchen even extended to the use of animal “barnyard lignite” well into the 20th century—as demonstrated by this North Dakota woman in 1940—to provide affordable fuel for the family stove.
– Photo Courtesy Library of Congress/”Muskogee Daily Phoenix and Times-Democrat” Oct. 9, 1910 news clipping courtesy Newspapers.com –

Sometimes leftover kitchen staples were turned into household items and vice versa. For example, lard was used to make soap and candles, while a new product called Cottolene was created in St. Louis, Missouri, using beef suet and cotton seed oil to replace lard. Vinegar was used in the kitchen for pickling and cooking but was also used as a cleaner.

Chicken wings were considered scraps and often used for stocks, but Missouri’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat recommended something else. They suggested the recipe below.

Frontier Chicken Wings

12 wings

1 teaspoon fresh pepper

½ cup oil · ½ cup vinegar

1 egg, beaten

Bread crumbs · Oil for frying

Sprinkle the wings with pepper. Combine oil and vinegar and pour over the wings. Refrigerate and marinate for two hours. Place egg in one bowl and bread crumbs in another. Dip the wings in the egg and then the breadcrumbs. Heat ½ inch of oil in a deep frying pan over medium-high heat. Gently place wings in the pan and cook until golden on both sides.

Recipe adapted from the St. Louis
Globe-Democrat, September 16, 1894.


Sherry Monahan kicked off her journey into Old West cuisine, spirits and places by authoring Taste of Tombstone. Visit SherryMonahan.com to learn more about her books, awards and TV appearances.

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