Welcome July! In Utah, there are two holidays that are celebrated with much revelry, food and fireworks. July 4th starts out the month to celebrate the American colonies declaring independence from Mother England. The end of month celebration is July 24th, Pioneer Day, which commemorates entry of Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers into Utah's Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Perusing through my collection of Utah state, and Mormon influenced, cookbooks, there was one recipe that seemed to be a popular Pioneer Day dish, Pork Stew. Salt pork was the main ingredient, if not available, then thick cut bacon was the secondary option. Now the question is, “Why the use of salt pork?”
First, we have to understand what salt pork is, how it is processed, and why was it so important to the pioneers? Cut from the pork belly, is resembles uncut bacon, but much fattier. The excess fat allows for the salt, in the curing process, to be absorbed fully, and preserve the meat. Layers of salt and pork belly are covered in water and soaked for up to three hours. The meat is removed and hung to dry before being wrapped carefully. During the 17th to 19th centuries, and mainly used by the military, salt pork could last up to 18 months, so it kept men fed during the worst circumstances.
For pioneers traveling to the untamed West, salt pork was a necessary item on the list of provisions; along with dried fruit, vegetables, spices, grains and a variety of long-lasting food items. Travel was by wagon train, horses, or on foot; there were no restaurants along the way to feed weary travelers, and no stores to buy more goods.
The Brigham Young caravan left Iowa City to make a 1,300-mile trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley. They were known as the “hand cart pioneers” as they did not have the benefit of wagons, nor oxen. Each person was allowed to carry only 17 pounds on their person, while the carts were loaded up from 400 to 500 pounds of food, bedding, clothing and cooking tools. The carts were pushed and pulled by “people power” only. Now this is a reenactment I would like to see!
In The Mormon Pioneer Cookbook (page 85) and Utah Cook Book (page 33), there are two very similar recipes, both giving credit to the 1847 pioneers. Salt pork, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, water, pepper are the ingredients listed. Salt? There was already an abundance of salt preserving the pork, so adding would have made the stew inedible. Basic preparation was to add all ingredients to a pot, place over the fire and cook until the potatoes were tender.
Nowadays, we have available a huge variety of foods, spices, and cooking gadgets that surely outshine those simple recipes from long ago. To make my updated version of pioneer pork stew, pork, potatoes, onions and tomatoes were a must; adding beans, garlic and chili powder gives it a deeper southwestern flair. Oh, and instead of salt pork or thick cut bacon, I cheated and used boneless pork chops which are leaner. Come now, you know how I do not follow rules when I can get away with it.
Pork Chop Stew
6 (2 lbs.) boneless pork loin chops5 small potatoes, peeled, cubed and parboiled
1 medium onion, chopped
½ tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. chili powder
½ tsp. garlic powder
2 cups red kidney beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed
5 plum (Roma) tomatoes, chopped
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cups beef broth
Spray a 4-quart crock pot dish with nonstick cooking spray. Begin placing layers of ingredients inside: pork chops; potatoes and onion mixed together; sprinkle spices evenly; kidney beans; tomatoes.
In a small bowl, whisk flour into the beef broth to create a slurry; pour over all ingredients in the crock pot dish. Cover, set on low and cook for 6-8 hours; potatoes, beans and pork should be fork tender.
Makes six servings.
Perhaps, when celebrating this year, you might consider cooking up some of those recipes from the pioneers, and get the full effect of what their first celebration was like.