Beef or Berries? Seasonal Foods of the Past

Do you buy meat or vegetables? Do you choose your groceries based on the outside temperature? For most people reading this blog, I suspect the answer is no, unless the air conditioner has died and you look at your house or apartment-mate and say “Cook? Forget it. Let’s get ice cream” or you go to an air-conditioned bar for a cold one. Or you are stocking up in case a winter storm takes the power out for an extended period (let’s see: chili in a can, stew in a can, bread, powdered milk, corned beef hash in a can, and so on.) ‘Twas not always so, something that a few writers of historical fiction occasionally miss.

Part of my research for my doctorate included reading twenty years worth of a twice-weekly farm and ranch newspaper that I came to call “the Cow Paper,” as in “Yes, sir, a microfilm machine, please. I’m in the Cow Paper again.” The years covered roughly 1895-1914, with a few missing months or so. This publication served as a combination ag news service, society page, women’s weekly, want-ads, and extension agency bulletin for Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, Indian Territory, New Mexico Territory, and Arkansas, with occasional news from elsewhere if it related to the price of crops and cattle. Anthrax in Argentina and hoof-and-mouth in New England got coverage, as did battles over meat tariffs between the German Empire and the U.S. Readers also knew which ranchers had passed through Ft. Worth on their way to other places on vacation, who got married, notable deaths, and could see pictures of prize-winning cattle in full anatomical splendor.

When you read two decades of any newspaper, you start seeing patterns. In this case, one that caught my eye was the seasonality of cattle prices. I’d expected crops to go up and down with drought and flood, planting and harvest (prices always dropped after harvest hit the markets). But not how cattle and beef prices reached their lowest points in July and August, started inching up in September, then rocketed to highs in December, sank a little, rose again, then began a slow decline into the late-summer trough before repeating. Even within larger patterns, like the drop in 1893 following the Panic, and in the later 1890s and early 1900s, the seasonal up and down remained in place.

When I read the reason why, in an editorial about the possibilities of refrigerated shipping, I wanted to hit myself in the forehead and go, “Duh.” Can you figure out what I’d been missing?

Spoilage and seasonality. In late summer, fruit and vegetables filled the market and were both relatively inexpensive and abundant. They were also safe, safer than meat that wasn’t fresh butchered and cooked promptly. How long is a side of beef going to stay fresh in 95 degree heat without any sort of cooling? There’s aged beef and then there’s Battleship Potemkin beef ([search engine] the movie if you are not familiar with the scene) . So the demand for all meat dropped: beef, chicken, pork, lamb and mutton, turkey. What money people had for food they spent on grains and produce. Then as the year grew colder, meat consumption increased and the Christmas beef clubs started collecting money again, until beef consumption peaked around Christmas and New Years, steadied out for the rest of the cold season, then started declining as people ate less meat and more of the now-available produce.

Pork seemed to be a bit of an exception, because people ate most pork preserved: ham, salt pork, sausage. The prices shifted but not as much as did beef prices. The rise of the canning industry helped beef exports but did not have that much effect on domestic prices, based on what I saw in the Cow Paper.

The other thing to keep in mind for residents of the South is the cost of fuel and how much heat a cast-iron stove puts out. If you can get away with not cooking and overheating the house, why not? There’s a reason the summer kitchen is a common out-building in the South and Southwest. And women who have been making preserves and canning fruit and vegetables all day are not going to either have space or time to make a roast with potatoes and all the trimmings.

If you are writing historical fiction, this is kinda important to know if you want to be accurate in those details that make the stories come alive. Someone in central Louisiana, say, eating beef in August either raised it themselves and is eating it for a reason (say, the calf broke its leg and had to be put down anyway, so might as well eat it), or was very, very rich. Or you need to change to a ham or salt-pork (or fatback) and greens and corn. Pigs are cheap to feed and preserve well. Cattle are luxury meat unless you are a rancher doing quality control on the neighbors’ herds. 😉 But that’s a tale for another time.