Being a hunter-gatherer in drought-prone Utah made for an unpredictable menu
By Maya Silver
If a Fremont family invited you over to dinner, say on the evening of April 1, 1025, what would be on the menu? We can’t say for sure, but we learn more about the diet of the prehistoric Fremont people every summer, as archaeologists head to Range Creek Canyon for another season of fieldwork.
At this remote and vast excavation site in eastern Utah, not only do researchers dig up clues to the Fremont past, but they also try to imitate the way the Fremont went about their everyday lives. The idea of this practice is that the art of imitation will yield a clearer sense of why the Fremont farmed, ate, and lived the way they did.
So, what might have the typical Fremont supper looked like? The answer to that question could depend on the availability of water, which—thanks to a series of severe droughts stretching from around 1135 until 1300—might have been pretty scarce toward the end of the Fremont stint in Range Creek.
We know that people here farmed corn, which they would have turned into flour and used in dishes like tortillas and soups. They also gathered wild berries and grains, as well as hunted game like elk, rabbit, and bighorn sheep. “We see a lot of hunting depicted in the rock art in Range Creek,” Range Creek Field School director Shannon Arnold Boomgarden says.
Eat Ancient: Bull elk permits are available first-come, first-served starting July 16 this year. Prefer someone else to do the hunting for you? Head to Hearth on 25th (195 25th St., Suite 6, Ogden, 801-399-0088, Hearth25.com) and dig into oven-roasted rabbit leg or a pan-seared elk backstrap. This Ogden restaurant is known for its wood-fired wild game—and has a name that suggests a more primordial way of cooking, to boot.
Farming, in particular, would have been quite vulnerable to the droughts that devastated Range Creek—not to mention much of North America. To investigate how a lack of rain might have affected corn crops, Boomgarden grows heirloom maize using different irrigation methods. In one experiment, archaeology students constructed dams and irrigation ditches using just their hands and sticks to divert water from Range Creek to a small plot of maize seedlings a few yards away. By actually farming as the Fremont did, Boomgarden can calculate the labor and water necessary to cultivate a crop, informing a cost-benefit analysis.
Eat Ancient: Bust out a mortar and pestle this summer and grind your own dried ear of Utah corn into flour (consider it your arm workout for the day). The easier route? Buy a bag of corn masa at Gonzalez Market (1220 S. Redwood Road, SLC, 801-886-1921, MercadoGonzalez.com)—and make your own corn tortillas for Taco Tuesday.
One unexpected hiccup with the maize experiments? Grasshoppers, which Boomgarden says have been “destroying plants en masse.” But we know that the Fremont turned this pesky problem into an opportunity, collecting these pests as a protein-rich food source.
Eat Ancient: Catch a grasshopper in your garden and fry it up as a salad topper! Prefer a more palatable way to enjoy this insect? You can also pick up a bag of Chirps—chips made from crickets—at Smith’s.
Eat Ancient: Another staple of the Fremont diet was Indian ricegrass, which just happens to be Utah’s official state grass. It’s a great source of protein, but laborious to render edible. From the ethnographic record, we know that people used to collect the seeds of Indian ricegrass in big cone-shaped baskets. Then they would sear off the little hairs and husks clinging to the seeds by singeing them with hot coals, rubbing them, and tossing them into the air.
“It’s a time-intensive process,” explains Range Creek Field Station Manager Corinne Springer. She would know—she has replicated it in order to determine the caloric return rates of processing and eating ricegrass seeds.
How exactly did the Fremont consume these seeds? “Most accounts indicate that Indian ricegrass was ground into a flour, but my attempts at this failed miserably,” Springer says.
Instead, she softens them by boiling them. Then, she experiments with them into different recipes, from soup to banana bread and oatmeal cookies, where they add a “really nice, mild nutty flavor.”
Sadly, the story of what’s for dinner with the Fremonts doesn’t end well (spoiler alert: everyone left before dessert). Archaeologists know that the droughts that ravaged Range Creek—and the greater Southwest—made life pretty tough there. People began storing their grains in granaries up steep crags that today most people would want to rope up for to reach—a sign that people had begun to fight over dwindling food. Eventually, by around 1200, all material evidence of the Fremont in Range Creek vanishes.
As we learn more and more about what the Utahns of antiquity ate, it becomes easier to channel the past through our palate. You can make your own tortillas, hunt a rabbit or catch a grasshopper in a Mason jar. The recipes that follow are one more way to eat like the Fremont (with some creative and convenient liberties taken, of course): Springer’s own recipe for Indian ricegrass pancakes with wild elderberry syrup.
Buttermilk Ricegrass Pancakes
1 cup ricegrass seeds*
2 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1½ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla
*Indian ricegrass seeds can be foraged throughout Utah at elevations between 3,000 and 10,000 feet. Look for them in valleys and foothills, and in dry areas with sandy soil from late May through mid-June. Springer recommends monitoring a patch once you find it, because when the seeds ripen, they will drop. If you forage your own seeds, you will need to tediously remove the hairs. (Visit VamooseUtah.com to find the full instructions for doing so.)
Alternatively, you can procure three different varieties of pre-processed, locally grown Indian ricegrass seeds year-round from local seed purveyor Great Basin Seeds. Visit the store in Ephraim (450 S. 50 East, Ephraim, 435-283-1411, GreatBasinSeeds.com).
Boil ricegrass seeds until swollen and soft. Whisk together dry ingredients. Whisk together wet ingredients and add to dry ingredients. Fold in ricegrass seeds. Batter should be thick and creamy. Adjust milk or flour until batter pours smoothly. For the lightest and fluffiest pancakes, let the batter rest 10 minutes.
Heat skillet or griddle on medium high until a drop of water sizzles and skips across the surface. Pour 1/3 cup batter onto lightly oiled surface. Flip when bubbles form and batter sets. Air bubbles are the key to light and fluffy pancakes so resist the temptation to flatten pancakes with your spatula.
3 cups elderberry juice*
¼ cups lemon juice
½ teaspoon butter or margarine
1 3-ounce envelope pectin
4-½ cups sugar
*You can buy elderberry juice online. To make your own, you can find wild elderberries in Utah’s foothills and mountains. Foraging for these berries is permitted everywhere except for in national parks and monuments. You will need approximately one pound of berries to produce one cup of juice. Make the juice by de-stemming, rinsing, and crushing berries, then simmering them in water for 15-20 minutes. Pour the resulting mixture through three layers of cheesecloth directly into your saucepot, pressing to extract as much juice as possible.
Combine elderberry juice, lemon juice, pectin, and butter in a 6-8 quart saucepot and bring to a rolling boil on medium high heat. Immediately stir in the sugar and return to a full rolling boil for exactly 1 minute. Remove from heat and store in jars in the refrigerator.