Shirleen Davies

American Frontier Christmas Food & Recipes

I’m sure you all would love to get a head start on Christmas meal planning. And if you’re adventurous, you might even include recipes prepared over 150 years ago by pioneers in the western frontier.

A special item pioneer women carried with them across the plains was their family recipes.  These recipes reflected the settlers’ heritages from Scandinavian pioneers in Minnesota to French Basques in Nevada. So, frontier Christmas dinners also varied based on the heritage of the different pioneer families.

However, there were some general Christmas foods that appealed to everyone—such as pickles!

This frontier recipe for pickles is from Legends of America,

Ranch Pickles

Fill a big jar (about one gallon) with cucumbers.  Add two tablespoons of salt, and a large bunch of dill.  Fill the jar with boiling water, put the lid back on it, and set in the sun for two weeks.

Bread was also served at most American Christmas dinners in the 19th century. This recipe for currant bread is from A Melting Pot of Pioneer Recipes,

This currant bread recipe was brought over with settlers who immigrated from Wales (my husband’s ancestry!) in 1856, where it was traditionally served at Christmas. Wild currants grew in some places and could have been dried to use in winter.

Currant Bread

Currant Bread


1 yeast cake

1/4 cup lukewarm water

9 cups flour

2 cups shortening

1 pound raisins

1 pound dried currants

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup molasses

3 halves candied lemon peel, cut fine

1 tablespoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon salt

3 cups (about) water

Soften yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Cut shortening into flour. Add remaining ingredients, including yeast mixture, except water. Mix thoroughly, then add enough warm water (about 3 cups) to make a soft but not sticky dough. Let rise overnight (about 7 hours), then form into 4 small loaves. Let rise again (about 2 hours) and bake at 300° F. for 1 1/2 hours.

Pie was another favorite frontier Christmas food. This pie filling and shell is from 10 Pioneer Recipes That Survived The Oregon Trail,

Swiss Apple Cherry Pie

Swiss Apple Cherry Pie


  • 4 large apples
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 2 1/2 cups pitted sour pie cherries, fresh or canned
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Pare, core, and slice the apples. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and brush on the bottom of pastry shell. Arrange a layer of apples on bottom of pastry shell. Mix dry ingredients and sprinkle portion over the layer of apples. Arrange a layer of red cherries, then sprinkle with some of the dry ingredients; then a layer of apples and dry ingredients; a layer of cherries and dry ingredients; and end with the layer of apples. Top with dots of remaining butter. After top crust is added to pie, rub crust with cream or evaporated milk and sprinkle with the mixture of 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Bake at 425° F. for 30 to 40 minutes.

To make the pie shell


  • 2 1/2 cups sifted flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup lard or shortening
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • Cold water

Cut shortening into flour and salt. Beat egg lightly in a 1 1/2-cup measure; add vinegar and fill the cup with cold water. Add just enough liquid to the dry ingredients to hold the dough together—about 4 tablespoons—set aside the rest of the liquid for the next batch of pastry. Roll it out into the pastry and use as desired. Makes two 9-inch pie shells.

Nearly all the information we have on frontier Christmas food is from letters and journals. For instance, Catherine Haun, a young newlywed at the time, wrote of her journey to California in 1849.

“It was a period of National hard times and we being financially involved in our business interests near Clinton, Iowa, longed to go to the new El Dorado and pick up gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts.”

They reached Sacramento California on November 4, 1849, six months and ten days after leaving Clinton, Iowa. Catherine spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in a canvas tent house.

“I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times. For Christmas dinner we had a grizzly bear steak for which we paid $2.50, one cabbage for $1.00 and—oh horrors—some more dried apples! And for a Christmas present the Sacramento river rose very high and flooded the whole town!”

Here is a frontier Christmas recipe for Spiced Red Cabbage from A Melting Pot of Pioneer Recipes,

This German recipe is still a favorite in many homes today as part of the Christmas feast.

Spiced Red Cabbage

Spiced Red Cabbage

4 cups shredded red cabbage

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 medium-sized apple

1 small potato, sliced

2 tablespoons vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon shortening

Combine cabbage, onion, apple, and potato in small amount of boiling salted water and simmer until tender. Drain and combine with remaining ingredients.

Author of the Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her book Little House on the Prairie, wrote of her childhood Christmas memories in Kansas. “Ma was busy all day long, cooking good things for Christmas. She baked salt-rising bread and Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and huge pan of baked beans, with salt pork and molasses. She baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.

Here is a Kansas Pioneer Vinegar Pie Recipe from Heritage Recipes,

Vinegar Pie

Vinegar Pie


2 tablespoons butter

½ cup sugar

3 tablespoons flour

2 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. ground cloves

½ tsp. ground allspice

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 cup water

1 9” pie crust that had been briefly baked (about 3 minutes) at 450 degrees

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream butter and sugar.  Sift together flour and spices then add to flour mixture, mix well.  Beat in egg, vinegar, and water.  Pour into a double boiler and cook over boiling water until thick.  Pour into the pie shell and bake about 30 minutes or until a knife comes out clean.

I’d love to hear your results if you try any of these recipes. You may comment on this post below!

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