Dining on the Prairie, 1860s Style
If you are looking for some good reading on life in Dakota Territory from the 1860s, you might want to check out Military Life in Dakota by Philippe Regis De Trobriand. De Trobriand was in command of Fort Stevenson in Dakota Territory from 1867-1869. His journal covers a wide range of topics about his time at the fort, ranging from observations on the space and solitude, mosquitoes, bison, prairie fires, grasshoppers, northern lights, and food. Now with Thanksgiving coming up next week, his observations on food offer us some interesting food for thought.
The abundance of ducks, geese, and other birds caught his attention. For example, on March 31, 1868, he noted that the “abundance of waterfowl is a great and valuable resource for our table. Without it our fare would be limited to a steady diet of beef and ham.”
He also noted that he “dined on fresh buffalo tongues and a beaver tail seasoned with small wild onions, table delicacies that an Epicurean could not get in Paris even for gold; The Cranbaceres, Rothschilds, Verons, and the other celebrated gourmets of Europe cannot imagine what they missed or what they will miss in dying without the taste of them.” I suspect that most North Dakotans have never eaten buffalo tongue or beaver tail, or even know someone that has.
Later on, in April of that year, perhaps in part to treat or prevent scurvy, they were eating “… small, wild, white onion or shallot, tasting very much like garlic, which grows in abundance on the prairie…The Indians supply us with a cylindrical tuber as thick as a thumb, which the Canadians call artichoke, I do not know why, for nothing is less like an artichoke. In form, it is more like salsify. Raw, it is almost without flavor, cooked, it tastes like a parsnip or like the most insipid turnip. The wild shallot is infinitely preferable.”
North Dakota is home to three species of wild onions: five species in the same genus. The white onion (Allium textile) is a common prairie spring wildflower over much of North Dakota. The other plant he refers to as artichoke is likely the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosa) which is a close relative of the common sunflower. It too has been documented in most counties across the state.