Sunday, April 29, 2018

Pioneer Food: Cooking Coons, Possums, and Armadillos by Vicky J. Rose, aka Easy Jackson

Although the thrust of my research has been in the Republic of Texas era, I think the following can be of use to anyone writing about frontier life.

Pioneers on the way to Texas loaded their wagons with hard tack, a flat bread lasting a long time.

Hard Tack Biscuits

2 pounds (8 cups) flour
1 teaspoon salt
¼ pound butter or lard ( ½ cup ) cut up
3 gills ( ¾  pint) milk.

Mix flour and salt, mix in lard. Add milk and knead dough for ½ hour. Cut into cakes about the size of a small teacup and ½ inch thick. Prick with a fork and bake in a moderate oven until they are a delicate brown.

At night, women would wait until the campfires died down before burying potatoes in the warm ashes to be eaten the next morning. White potatoes were commonly called “Irish potatoes,” as opposed to sweet potatoes which were sometimes referred to as “yams.” Sweet potatoes were much more common in Texas because they were easier to grow than Irish potatoes.

At first, cattle were used mostly for oxen or milk, not to be slaughtered. Cheese, usually a soft version, was often made every day when there was excess milk. Chickens were for eggs and usually only slaughtered when they could no longer lay.

Because of the amount of meat one got for the least amount of effort, pork reined as king. Pigs could be turned out to forage for themselves in the summer and butchered in the fall. The meat, when smoked and cured, kept well. Hams hung in smokehouses, while bacon might be covered with a cloth and thrown on a shelf. The saying was they used “everything but the squeal.”

Sausages and any cooked meat could be preserved by drying or placing in a stone crock and covering with lard.

Poor sanitation caused raw vegetables to be looked upon in disfavor as something that could cause disease, and the vegetables pioneers ate were consequently cooked much longer than we do today. The abundance of wildlife made it difficult in the first few years of settling a new land to be able to have a garden. If pork was king in the meat department, corn ruled in the vegetable world. Cornbread was often served at every meal, as corn was much easier to grow than wheat.

Dewberries - a wilder, smaller version of blackberries
Because oven temperatures were difficult to regulate, cakes often turned out dry and unappetizing. The pioneer woman counteracted this by making heavy cakes filled with dried fruits and nuts. Pies were much more forgiving, and they became the dessert of choice. The pioneer woman used whatever she had on hand for pies: wild fruits, buttermilk, sweet potatoes, vinegar, and even the ubiquitous cornmeal.

Wild Mustang Grapes

Mustang grapes are distinguished by the white velvety underside of their leaves. The fruit when ripe is dark purple with a bitter, acid taste. With enough sugar added, they are fine for making jellies, wines, and grape juice. When mixed with molasses and allowed to ferment, mustang grapes made a homemade wine referred to as “Busthead Whiskey.”
Mustang Grapes Growing Wild in the Trees on a Country Lane

Mustang Green Grape Pie

3 cups green mustang grapes
1 ½ cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons butter
Unbaked pastry for two 9-inch pie crusts
Melted butter and sugar for sprinkling over top crust

Pick the grapes when they are still a beautiful green color, just before the seed is formed. Wash them and put in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil.
Mix the sugar and flour together, add to the grapes when they begin to boil. Add butter and cook over medium heat. Stir, and when mixture begins to thicken, pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie crust. Add top crust or lattice crust. If desired, brush the top crust with melted butter and sprinkle sugar on top.
Bake at 400° for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325° and continue baking for 20-30 minutes.

Game was plentiful. Buffalo tongue was considered a special treat. Bear grease is sweeter and much better tasting than pork lard, but it turns rancid quickly.


Mature bear is usually too tough to eat and should only be used in long cooking stews. However, some cooks believe all bear, except for perhaps black bear, is edible as long as it is soaked in an oil-based marinade for at least 24 hours before cooking. The fat must be removed immediately, as it turns rancid quickly. Cook after marinating as you would beef pot roast or stew. Bear, like pork, can carry trichinosis, so be sure the meat is always well cooked through.

Other wild game was consumed with relish, as it was free and only had to be caught. Mexicans living in Texas also ate armadillo, although I do not think this was common among the Anglos. Armadillo is supposedly a very light, tender and tasty meat.
Hondo peers into an armadillo hole.


½ cup vinegar
1 cup water
Black Pepper

Lay armadillo on back. With a sharp knife, slit from throat to tail and then across from shoulder to shoulder. Skin leg and shoulder close to the shell. Keep working close to the shell until the whole armadillo is out of shell. Then, being careful not to break the intestines, gut the armadillo. Wash well and cut in half. Place armadillo in a pan, cover with water. Stir in ½ cup of vinegar and about that much salt to make a brine. Soak overnight, drain and rinse. Place in roasting pan and sprinkle with black pepper. Add about 1 cup of water, cover and bake as you would a roast. Add more water as needed until done.

Raccoon & Muskrat

Raccoon and muskrat are both dark meat, and like bear, every bit of the fat must be removed after skinning. Also, like bear, they should be thoroughly cooked to prevent infections by worms. There are several small scent glands that must also be removed before cooking—under the armpits of the front legs, on either side of the spine, and in the small of the back.
Raccoon can be simmered, roasted, fried, or barbequed.  

1 raccoon
Cayenne pepper—to taste
Salt and pepper—to taste
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium green pepper, chopped
Cooking oil
6 sweet potatoes, peeled

Dress the raccoon and soak it for 1 hour in a mild vinegar and water solution. Drain and cut into pieces. Cover with water. Add salt, peppers, and chopped vegetables. Under medium heat, bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook until tender. Drain, pat dry, and brown in a small amount of cooking. Place in a roaster.  Prepare a brown gravy with flour and drippings; pour over the raccoon, placing the sweet potatoes around it. Bake at 350° until potatoes are done, 30 to 40 minutes.

Opossum (Almost always referred to as “Possum”)

Cooks prepare possum in various ways. The fat is not objectionable in taste or odor and does not have to be removed. The meat is light-colored and tender. 

Method One:
Drain the blood, remove the entrails and wipe clean. Hang for 48 hours. Skin and cook. Roasting is the preferred method. The liver may be chopped up and added to the gravy.

Method Two:
Trap the possum and feed it for 10 days on cereal and milk. Clean but do not skin. Immerse into water just below the boiling point. Pluck the hair, when it slips out readily, remove the possum and scrape the hair off. While scraping, occasionally pour cool water over the surface of the animal. (Much like you would a hog.) Remove the small red glands in the small of the back, and under each foreleg between the shoulder and rib. Parboil for 1 hour. Cook like you would a pork roast.


A young rabbit has a narrow cleft in the lip and smooth, sharp claws. The ears will be soft and bend easily.

After the kill, drain the blood and remove entrails immediately. Leave the skin on if not cooked immediately. The body cavity can be cleaned with a cloth or dry grass. To ensure tender meat, hang by the feet for 1 to 4 days. They can be eaten immediately if not stiff. Once stiffened, they can still be edible as long as the hind legs are rigid.

Many people like to soak rabbit in either vinegar, wine, or salted water before cooking. Soaking or not is a matter of taste. Brining in salt water is a popular way to keep meat juicy.
Rabbit can be prepared in much the same way as chicken—fricasseed, baked, roasted, or boiled and diced to serve in a salad. For a unique and special sauce, the blood can be used as a thickener.

Squirrels might not be the easiest things to shoot, but they
were highly favored. 

Gray squirrels are preferred; red squirrels are small and gamey in flavor.

Squirrel is one of the finest and tenderest of all game meat. Only the oldest and toughest need to be parboiled. Clean as soon as possible, wipe the body cavity with grass, cloth or paper. Let the body heat dissipate. As with rabbit, it doesn’t have to be skinned until it is ready to be cooked. Squirrels are commonly fried like chicken or put into stews like Brunswick Stew. However, they are delicious broiled, baked, and cooked with dumplings.

My son’s grandfather told him that as a boy, he would kill squirrels and share them with an old black gentleman he knew. He would get angry at him and tell him not to shoot the squirrels in the head—the brains were the best part. (When I repeated this in a speech to a Daughters of the Republic of Texas chapter, several women nodded their heads, saying their grandparents had loved squirrel brains.)

Almost all the blacks living in Texas during the early 19th century were slaves, and they were given the ears, feet, neck bones, and intestines of the hog to eat. Chitterlings (pronounced “chit-lins”) were made with the intestines. They have a strong aroma when cooked that many people find objectionable.


After slaughtering a young pig, empty the large intestines while still warm by turning them inside out and scraping as clean as possible. Cover with salted water, keep cool for 24 hours. Drain and wash in 5 or 6 waters. Any excess fat can be removed but leave some for flavor.

            10 pounds chitterlings
            1 garlic clove or 1 teaspoon of minced garlic
            1 onion sliced or coarsely chopped  
            ½ teaspoon salt
            ½ teaspoon pepper
            Enough cold water to cover

Optional ingredients:
 ½ sliced lemon
½ teaspoon each: thyme, clove, mace, and allspice
            1 bay leaf       
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
            2 tablespoons fresh parsley
            2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Cut chitterlings up in 2-inch lengths. Bring slowly to a boil, add other ingredients. Reduce heat and simmer for about 3 hours. A half a cup of catsup can be added the last thirty minutes of cooking time if desired. Most people like to douse their chitterlings with vinegar or hot sauce.

When ranger companies were formed in Texas, they would live for weeks at a time on nothing but wild game, honey if they could find it, and coffee “the favorite drink of Texans.”

People living near the coast of Texas not only feasted on wild game, but fish, shellfish, and oysters as big as your hand. The wealthy planters living near the port cities had access to a wide variety of food, including coffee, London ale, and champagne. It seems strange to us thinking about the frontier days, but where it was available, champagne was a popular drink.

Almost all the stagecoach stops in Texas served much the same food, salt pork and cornbread. The
The Nicholson Hotel in Bastrop near the river burned down in
the late 1800s, but the Old Stagecoach Inn by the El Camino
Real in Bastrop still stands. Davy Crockett and Sam Houston
were visitors.
Tremont House in Galveston was known for its good food. Nevertheless, one Frenchman coming to the New World ate one meal there, turned around and went back to France. A few others, such as the Nicholson Hotel in Bastrop, became renowned for exceptionally good fare. They all served alcohol, and although the bar was a good source of revenue for innkeepers, murders and fights were not uncommon, much to the dismay of many of the innkeepers’ wives.

Tableware could vary widely from place to place. Some people ate off tin plates using utensils made from cane. In other places, people used fine china and silver cutlery. Most people had steel utensils with wooden handles. Pearlware and creamware, types of decorated pottery, were not uncommon, and shards of pearlware believed to have come from a kiln in Mexico have been found at Presidio La Bahía, a Spanish fort in Goliad.

 Although forks were on the table, knifes were often used to pick up food. It wasn’t considered rude to pour coffee from a cup into a saucer and drink it from the saucer.

Although eastern travelers may have complained about the monotony and unpretentiousness of corn pone, greens flavored with side meat, and bacon, they remarked there always seemed to be an abundance of it. And that, I think, speaks well for the old pioneers of Texas.

The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, District VIII:  A Pinch of This and a Handful of That, Historic Recipes of Texas 1830-1900, Eakin Press, Austin, 1988

Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, 1962 edition

Recipe Roundup—Compiled by the Whitehead Memorial Museum, Del Rio, TX

Cooking Texas Style, Candy Wagner & Sandra Marquez, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993

Stagecoach Inns of Texas, Kathryn Turner Carter, Waco, Texian Press, 1972

Mary Austin Holley: The Texas Diary, 1835

Mrs. Blackwell’s Heart of Texas Cookbook, Louise B. Dillow & Deenie B. Carver, Corona Publishing, San Antonio, 1980

Wild Game Cookbook, Edited by L.W. “Bill” Johnson, Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, New York, 1968

Coming in November, 2018, Pinnacle Books

A Bad Place to Die by Easy Jackson 


  1. Vicky,

    The one time I attempted to make a batch of Hard Tack was a disaster. I swear it came out harder than concrete. lol I've eaten rabbit many times. Muskrat once... ewww. The Mustang Green Grape Pie recipe reminds me of gooseberry pie. I wonder if mustang green grapes are as tart as gooseberries?

    1. Probably, Kay. I'm watching the grapes around here so I can try it. I've only eaten squirrel, and it was good.

  2. Oh, Vicky...I would have starved to death. LOL This is really interesting! I admit, I would not know where to begin to cook any of these but maybe if I lived "back in the day" and had grown up eating it I would feel differently. LOL Your book looks wonderful, too!

    1. Thank you, Cheryl. I tried to eat fresh killed chicken from the farmer's market, and it was so strong, I couldn't stand it. Too used to those bland supermarket chickens.

  3. This is in the category of "you do what you've gotta do." LOL. But it's sure interesting. I didn't know about the scent glands on raccoons. Muskrats--our cat used to think they made a tasty meal but we sure never ate them. I guess if we'd been hungry enough, we would've. Our pioneer antecedents were sure resourceful and hearty.

    1. I agree! Even though I had one woman tell me possum was really good, I don't think I want to try it!

  4. Thanks for an informative post -- I agree with most everybody else -- I'd only try some of that stuff if I were truly starving!

    1. Yes, if we were hungry enough, I guess we would. There is an armadillo in my yard right now, but I have no plans to catch him!

  5. Vicky, I grew up picking dewberries, as I'm sure you did too. Do you think mustang grapes are the same as muscadines? We had those aplenty as well. Thanks for the recipes. I'll, um, be watching the roadside for some prime armadillo/possum carcasses. (not)

    1. No, I think the muscadines have a musky taste. Mustang grapes are really too bitter to eat even when ripe; they have to have sugar added. When I think of all those snakes probably lurking about in among all those dewberries we picked when we were kids....

  6. Great essay, Vicky. It brought back a lot of memories. Mustang grape jelly is pretty good so long as you let the juice stand in a glass bowl or crock for a few hours to let the tartaric acid settle out. Otherwise, it's pretty gritty and tends to burn my mouth. We found a jar of jelly recently from grapes picked by our 33 year old son back when he was seven. It's become something of a conversation piece about how tough we were on him as a kid to make him pick those itchy grapes when we lived in Texas...

    Here in Alaska we don't eat grizzly bear (though some Natives do) but spring black bear is really tasty, especially when marinated it in milk. I know a Yup'ik woman who makes the best donuts, frying them in bear grease.
    I help out the local Boy Scout troop with their spring campout each year. We give every two boys a live chicken that they dispatch and prepare for their evening meal after the hike into camp. They learn a lot of skills along with the fact that meat doesn't always come wrapped in plastic, and, if they're gonna be meat eaters, not to let others always do their killin' for them.

    1. Wow, what a great story. I didn't know that about the Mustang grape jelly, or about the bear. It's so great what you are teaching the scouts. I've met grown women who didn't believe me when I said bacon came from hogs. :)

  7. Very useful. I've dined on rabbit and squirrel, but really never cared for them. One elderly lady had a couple of us over when we were younger and our feast was rabbit. She was so proud of her meal.

    I hadn't thought of that in some time. Thanks for the memory nudge. Doris

    1. You're welcome, Doris. Glad to assist in bringing up those old memories.

  8. I have a 1950's edition of "Joy of Cooking" that lists in the index oppossum (right after opera creams).

    1. I don't think she tested every recipe, she just collected them. Sort of like me!

  9. I jut returned from the family ranch in Mexico. The vaqueros used to cook up armadillo, not so much any day, but occasionally. I never paid much attention to details, but the removed the head and legs and carefully gutted it,. Not sure of other prepare, but they laid it on its back and cooked it in the shell. I recall they used Cayenne pepper. Its not too bad if you were hungry. Good informative article.

    1. Cayenne pepper overrides all sorts of things.... I guess if I was starving, I could make myself eat anything. :)

  10. My dad treated the family (or should I say subjected the family) to some of these dishes. Oppossum, racoon, even turtle. Rabbit was okay. Can't say that I like the other. Maybe it was just the thought. Lol. We always called white potatoes "Irish potatoes." I wonder if the term was passed down. I have Irish in my genealogy.

  11. Wow! That's all been an interesting eye-opener for me, Vicky. And I come from the land of the haggis. Chitterlings sounds - intriguing! I suppose that drinking busthead whiskey would help with some dishes.