In her book Gold Rush Grub, Ann Chandonnet seeks to highlight the experience of stampeders from the American gold rushes, mainly through their relationship with food. Her discussion centers firstly on the gold rush in California in the late 1840s and early 1850s, then on the Klondike rush in the late 1890s, and lastly on Alaska’s gold rush at the turn-of-the-century. As she explains, prior to gold rushes, on all three territories “[…] much of [the] ground was inhospitable, nearly trackless, and the food consumed was, for the most part, interchangeable with the simple, hearty, seasonal fare served in farm kitchen all over North America […]. (2)” In her book, she demonstrates the struggles faced by those deciding to leave their hometown to chase gold, at every step of the way from their journey there to life in boom towns or isolated diggings, and how they have managed to come up with recipes — thereby highlighting the “grit and stubborn ingenuity of frontier cooks. (2)”.
By covering such a vast geographical space and an expansive timeline, Chandonnet is able to demonstrate how changes in technology — from processes such as food canning and dehydration, which both appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century — and climate zones strongly influenced and tainted the experiences of stampeders when it came to food, whether it was the type of food they consumed or issues of supply and preservation. The author does a great job illustrating how these issues permeated the recipes printed in cookbooks or transmitted amongst those who travelled on the frontier. Another interesting aspect of her discussion is the emphasis on certain “staple” foods which were crucial to most stampeders’ diets — notably beans and bacon, to which she dedicates an entire chapter.
One crucial component of the author’s analysis is the importance of narratives and what they reveal on the stampeders and their food-related experiences on the frontier. Through their daily diets, the author is able to highlight many aspects of the experience of frontiersmen. Indeed, life on the frontier was tough, and Chandonnet aptly illustrates daily struggles faced by stampeders. She discusses issues faced by those who travelled in remote destinations to chase gold and by those who struck it rich and made a name for themselves in boom towns. Conversely, she also addresses narratives related to poverty or starvation, which sometimes ended in death.
Chandonnet aptly demonstrates the peculiar experience of those who witnessed the gold rushes and mainly does so by using a vast array of primary sources. Cookbooks are the primary material with which Chandonnet works. As she explains, cookbooks reflect changes in methods and hygiene, and as she puts it: “American tastes can be traced through America’s cookbooks”(5).
Through the recipes presented in these cookbooks — many of which she reprinted in her book — she is able to demonstrate how versatile frontiersmen were when it came to cooking in barely chartered territories and in the face of very variable climate. Moreover, the recipes demonstrate the diversity in terms of culture which characterized “frontier life”. For instance, many recipes reflect the influence of Native American traditions — which is unsurprising considering their presence in most of these territories prior to the arrival of hundreds of stampeders following the gold rushes. In addition to cookbooks, the author uses diaries and classic literary works from famous author who witnessed the gold rushes. For example, Chandonnet often refers to Jack London’s A Daughter of the Snows, The Son of the Wolf, and some of his other works, all of which provide bits and pieces of his experience in Klondike.
While Chandonnet’s work is impressive on many levels, notably on the variety of sources and narratives presented, it is worth noting that it sometimes lacks a deeper analysis of these sources. For example, she often jumps from one story to another without explaining how they relate to one another or how and why the stories are relevant to her discussion. The reader, therefore, has to provide its own interpretation of how the story ties in to the discussion. At times, it seems as if the book is more about storytelling than actual historical work, and in this sense, it often comes across as more of a presentation than an in-depth analysis of life on the frontier. Despite this minor criticism, Chandonnet’s book is certainly an important addition to the history of the American frontier development and the history of American food.
Katherine Anne St-Louis holds a bachelor’s degree in History from McGill University and a master’s degree in American History from the Université de Montréal. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking and reading, as well as practicing martial arts.
Katherine Anne St-Louis détient un baccalauréat en histoire de l’Université McGill et une maîtrise en histoire américaine de l’Université de Montréal. Outre la cuisine et la lecture, elle pratique les arts martiaux.