Learning About Pioneer Life with American Girl Kirsten Part 2: Pioneer Food

Food was a big part of pioneer life. Kirsten’s family raised or grew almost everything they ate, so the spent a lot of time planting and harvesting crops from their fields and garden, and caring for the chickens, cows, and pigs that gave the family their eggs, milk, butter, cheese, ham, and bacon. They also spent a lot of time preserving food, and of course, cooking it! Let’s try some pioneer recipes to learn about what Kirsten and her family would have eaten in the 1850s.

*Note: Most of the information in this post comes from Kirsten’s Cookbook which is a great resource and full of tasty recipes!

Swedish Rice Porridge: A Special Breakfast Treat (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)

The Swedish name for this rice porridge is Skansk grot (pronounced skone-sk groot) and it was a dish Swedish settlers brought with them from the homeland. It was usually made for dessert, but Kirsten’s mama sometimes kept the leftovers warm overnight in the cookstove so it could be eaten for breakfast. Some other foods that were usually eaten at breakfast were eggs and pork sausage. A pioneer breakfast had to be hearty to give them fuel for a long workday ahead!


  • 1 large apple
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 cup white rice
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 inch cinnamon stick
  • 4 cups milk
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • cream or honey (optional)


  1. Peel and core the apple and cut into small pieces. Set aside.
  2. Grease the bottom of the saucepan with butter.
  3. Put the rice, water, and cinnamon stick into the saucepan. Place the pan on the stove on medium heat.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to simmer. Cover the pan and simmer 10-15 minutes or until all water is absorbed.
  6. Pour the milk into the saucepan. Turn up the heat and stir until the milk begins to simmer.
  7. When the milk begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Add the brown sugar, chopped apple, and raisins. Stir gently.
  8. Cover the pan and simmer the porridge for about 45 minutes. Stir it once or twice as it cooks.
  9. Turn off the heat and take the pan from the stove. Remove the cinnamon stick and stir in the vanilla.
  10. Serve warm with cream or honey.

Serves 6

Something that might surprise you about a Swedish pioneer breakfast is that they sometimes finished with a cookie! Kirsten would also put one in her pocket to eat for a snack later since dinner was a long time and a lot of work away!

Ginger Cookies (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)


  • 6 cups flour (plus more for rolling out dough)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup soft shortening
  • 1 1/2 cup dark molasses
  • 2/3 cup cold water


  1. Mix flour, baking soda, salt, allspice, ginger, cloves and cinnamon in a large bowl.
  2. In another large bowl, place the packed brown sugar.
  3. Add shortening to the brown sugar and cream together by pressing the brown sugar and shortening against the side of the bowl and then stirring quickly until the mixture is creamy.
  4. Add the molasses and water to the sugar mixture. Stir to mix well.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix until all the dry ingredients are mixed in.
  6. Cover the bowl with a large plate and chill for 1 hour.
  7. Preheat the over to 350 degrees and cover cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  8. Flour your work surface and rolling pin. Roll out dough to 1/2″ thick.
  9. Cut out circles with a cookie cutter and place them on the cookie sheets. Place them at least 2 inches apart as they will get bigger as they bake.
  10. Bake the cookies 12-15 minutes.
  11. Remove the cookies from the cookie sheet to cool.

Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies

In the early afternoon, Kirsten’s family would have dinner, which was the largest meal of the day. As soon as breakfast was finished and cleaned up, Mama and Kirsten would begin to prepare dinner. Kirsten would dig up some potatoes, pull an onion, and cut a cabbage from the garden to use for the midday meal.

Make Dinner for Kirsten!

Kirsten, like most pioneer children of her day, was supposed to be seen, not heard at the dinner table. But she could help her father say grace before each meal. One prayer she might have said was “Valsigna Gud den mat vi fa (pronounced Vel-SING-nuh Goodt den maht vee foh) which means “May God bless the food we eat.”

Swedish Potatoes (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)

Potatoes were an important staple of Swedish food. Many Swedish families ate potatoes at every meal. You’ll see why when you try these Swedish potatoes! Some Swedish immigrants survived on potatoes and little else their first winter in America.


  • 1 medium onion
  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 3/4 cups heavy cream of half-and-half


  1. Peel the onion and chop it into small pieces.
  2. Peel the potatoes and cut them into cubes.
  3. Melt the shortening in the large skillet over medium heat. Add potatoes and onion. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir a few times.
  4. Stir while you add the cream a little at a time. When the liquid bubbles, turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Test the potatoes with a fork for doneness. If the fork goes into the potatoes easily, they are done.

Cabbage and Apple Salad (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)

Kirsten’s family would have grown cabbage in their garden and had apple trees on their farm. Pioneer families in Kirsten’s time preserved apples for use in the winter by cutting apples in thin slices and spreading them on flat rocks to dry or hanging them on the side of the house so they could dry in the sun.

Serves 6


  • 1/2 head cabbage
  • 2 apples
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup honey


  1. Cut, and coarsely shred the cabbage. Put the cabbage in a large bowl.
  2. Peel the apples, remove the cores, and shred them into the large bowl.
  3. Add the raisins to the bowl.
  4. Toss the mixture to combine it well.
  5. Combine the cream and honey in a small bowl. Pour the mixture over the salad and toss it again.
  6. Cover the bowl with a plate and chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Pork Sausage Patties (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)

Most pioneer families raised at least one hog every year, which they butchered in the fall. Hogs were very easy to care for – they would eat table scraps and leftovers that couldn’t be saved, as well as grains that the family grew on their farm. Much of the meat was preserved by smoking it, and every other part of the pig was used – the skin was used to make leather, the fat was used for cooking, the bristles were used to make brushes, even the brains were eaten!


  • 1 1/2 pounds lean ground pork
  • 1/2 tsp salt (I would actually recommend 1 tsp)
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ginger


  1. Put the pork in a mixing bowl. Add salt, pepper, and spices. Mix well with a spoon.
  2. Divide the mixture into 12 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball, then flatten into a patty.
  3. Heat a skillet over medium heat for 1 minute. Arrange sausage patties in the skillet and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  4. Turn the patties and cook for 4 minutes on the other side.
  5. Remove the patties and drain any grease.
  6. Cook each side once more for an additional 3-4 minutes. Check with a meat thermometer for doneness. Be careful no to overcook!

Time for Dessert!

The Swedish made lots of tasty treats! These Swedish pancakes are quick and easy and so delicious! You can fill them with jam, like Kirsten did. Kirsten would have helped her mother make jams from wild berries and fruits she helped to pick. It was a way to preserve the fruit for the seasons when it couldn’t be found fresh.

Swedish Pancakes (from Kirsten’s Cookbook)


  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used butter for this and it worked fine)
  • Jam


  1. Melt the 6 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Turn off heat.
  2. Beat eggs with a wire whisk.
  3. Add 1/2 cup of milk and beat the mixture for 2 minutes with the whisk.
  4. Add the flour to the egg mixture and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth.
  5. Beat in the remaining milk and add the butter, salt, and cinnamon.
  6. Add the oil (or butter) to the skillet. Heat until very hot.
  7. Drop about a tablespoon of the thin batter into the skillet for each pancake (I actually used about 1/4 cup of batter. 1 Tablespoon made the pancake much smaller than I wanted).
  8. After about 1 minute, the edges of the pancake will brown lightly. Turn the pancake and cook the other side for 1 minute. Remove from pan.
  9. Scoop a little jam into the center of the pancake, roll it up, and eat it right away! So tasty!

Churning Butter

Another job that Kirsten helped with was making butter. Making butter was hard work and it took some time. Many pioneers helped pass the time by singing churning songs to the rhythm of the pounding of the dasher in the churn. The following is an English churning song, so it would have been sung by pioneers from England. Kirsten probably had her own Swedish churning song!

Come, Butter, Come

Come, butter, come; 
Come, butter, come,
Peter stands at the gate
Waiting for his butter cake;
Come, butter, come.

Make Butter!

Making butter is easy and pretty fun too! I’m going to show you how to do it with a butter churn, but if you don’t have one (which I guess you probably don’t) don’t worry! I’ll show you how to do it in a mason jar.

What you need:

  • heavy cream (I used 1 quart)
  • sea salt
  • a butter churn or mason jar with lid
  • marble if churning in a jar (optional)

The first step is to pour your heavy cream into the butter churn or jar. If you are using a jar, make sure your lid fits tightly. It is helpful to also have a clean marble in the jar to help with the churning, but it is not essential. Chill the jar and marble for an hour or so to help the churning go faster.

Next, start churning! For the churn, just plunge the dasher (the wooden part that goes in the churn) up and down over and over. This is where the churning song comes in, as you are going to be doing this for a while!

Next, keep churning! You will notice after a bit that your cream is getting thicker. Keep going!

After a while you will have nice thick whipped cream. Your butter is on its way!

But keep churning! After a while longer, you will see some butter start to form, but you aren’t done yet! The fat is coming together in the butter, but you haven’t finished until you see liquid separating out from the butter. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep churning!

When you see lots of buttermilk separated from your butter, you are finally done churning! This will take about 30 minutes to an hour from the time you started churning. This is what it will look like:

Now, strain the buttermilk off the butter and save it in a jar. Use it to make some yummy biscuits or pancakes!

Now, rinse your strained butter in a bowl of ice water. Try to get all the buttermilk out of the butter by squeezing it in your hands. You can use a cheesecloth to help you with this. This sounds really messy, but the ice helps the butter get nice and solid, so its doesn’t melt all over your hands.

Once all the buttermilk is out, put your butter in a bowl and add some sea salt. 1/2 tablespoon was just about right for the butter made from 1 quart of milk, but add salt to taste. Mix the salt in with a spoon, then put your butter on a piece of parchment paper. Wrap it and store it in the fridge or freezer. You can also mold your butter by scooping it into candy molds and placing it in the freezer for 10 minutes or so.

That’s all there is to it!

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