In the early 1800s folks living in Northwest Arkansas produced and prepared nearly all of their own food. Early settlers hunted game animals like deer and turkey, gathered wild fruits and honey, raised chickens and pigs, and grew such vegetables as corn and greens for the family table. Food preparation was an all-day event over a fire. There wasn’t a lot of variety in the homesteader’s diet, especially in wintertime. The “three M’s” in the Ozarks were meat, meal (corn meal), and molasses.
During the 1870s G.B. Jones made “maple sugar cakes.” A sugar camp was set up near a stand of sugar maple trees on the family homestead west of Sulphur Springs. The sap was collected in early spring and boiled down in a big iron kettle until thick, then poured into molds to cool. Most of the finished cakes were taken to Neosho, Missouri, and sold. But a couple of the nicely browned cakes found their way into Jones’ pocket as a treat for his girlfriend.
With large food processors such as Pillsbury and Campbell’s soups begining to produce quality, low-cost products, by 1900 half of the food eaten by most Americans came from the store. Further time-savers were soon introduced including self-service grocery stores, quick-frozen foods, packaged mixes, and frozen dinners. Eating out became popular as well. As roads opened up it became easier to ship luxury goods such as sugar and coffee to the frontier. Convenience items like tinned food began arriving mid century as canning technology improved. Further variety was possible in 1881 when the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad began steaming through the Ozarks. Refrigerated railroad cars allowed perishable meat, fruits, and vegetables to be shipped nationwide. The rise of convenience food meant that traditional foodways declined. By the 1970s local newspapers were featuring articles about old-timers making apple butter or molasses the old-fashioned way. Preserving food for home use was no longer commonplace.
Today we purchase “home-cooked” meals in grocery stores, have pizzas delivered, and eat fast food in our cars. But the popularity of home cooking is increasing. Julia Child helped start the trend in the 1960s with her cooking show, “The French Chef.” Now there are many food-related magazines, television shows, and specialty stores to tempt our taste buds. Americans are rediscovering good food.