PUBLISHED: 4:17 PM on Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Chandonnet takes inside look at Gold Rush grub

Have you ever wondered how to roast a bear or stew a porcupine? If so, a new book by local author Ann Chandonnet can help answer any intrepid cook's questions about the fine art of preparing pioneer cuisine.

Gold Rush Grub, From Turpentine Stew to Hoochinoo is a food history that takes the reader from the California Gold Rush to the Klondike, with some stops on the high seas and the American plains along the way. "It's not just a book about Alaska," explained Chandonnet of the hardcover that took roughly 10 years to write. "I describe what people ate in California, and on ships traveling around Cape Horn to get to the gold. There are descriptions of what Plains travelers ate, and what prospectors were eating during the various Alaska gold rushes, depending on whether they were poor or struck it rich."

"I also try to show how changes in technology between 1848 and 1898 made a big change in the way people ate," she added. "Artificial ice was invented, which allowed for refrigerated railroad cars, and railroads were built that linked East and West. Canning was invented, along with evaporated milk and Campbell's soup. Things that weren't available during the California Gold Rush became available to those traveling to the Klondike."

For those who did well in the backcountry, food could be a pleasure. "When people struck it rich, they could buy about anything," Chandonnet explained. "I think it surprises people how sophisticated the food was in restaurants. Just as in any period of time, there was bad food and there was good food."

The best food included oysters, ice cream and cognac; for those who weren't so lucky, it might mean beans and nettle soup. "A lot of the gold rushers were city folk, and had never cooked for themselves," said Chandonnet. "A lot of what they made was inedible. But after hauling their gear along the trail, they built up enough of an appetite to eat it anyway."

Chandonnet's book is based on the real-life experiences of prospectors and others who lived during the gold rush years. She gathered much of her research from unpublished diaries, and was also able to interview some pioneers and their descendants. "Though much of my information was taken from diaries and letters that were written home, I also have some regular characters who appear and reappear in the text, including Jack London and Rex Beach, who are talking about what they ate in Rampart and Nome," she said.

Chandonnet first got the idea for the book while writing the Alaska Heritage Seafood Cookbook, which was published in 1995. "While I was doing research, I found a lot of information about food during the Gold Rush," she said. "I thought, 'gee, what a good topic.' So I held on to it, and when I finished that book, I started on this."

Though a history, Chandonnet says that the book is filled with anecdotes as well as about 50 recipes. "I didn't want it to be scholarly; I wanted it to be accessible and amusing," she said. Recipes in the book include nettle soup, which is one of Chandonnet's favorites, as well as tales of stranger foods, like turpentine stew.

"People were sometimes tricked on the trail-a roadhouse owner might say that they were serving caribou stew, but the bones in it would be really small," she said. "People threw anything into the pot. The name 'turpentine stew' came from a roadhouse where the owner used a kerosene can as his soup pot. The food that came out of it tasted like turpentine."

The book, which comes out this week, is 'the first history ever published with recipes,' by the University of Alaska Press. "I hope that people make some of these recipes with their children to give them an idea of how their ancestors ate," said Chandonnet. "It's a great way to experience history."

Chandonnet is planning a book signing in August, but until then plans to take a little break. "I'm tired right now," she laughed, "though I'm working on a travel book about southeast Alaska. That will come out next June."

"All I can say is that if a person has a good idea, they should hold onto it," she added of her quest to complete the book that was rejected by a few publishers before finding its niche. "No one has ever taken this kind of look at the Gold Rush before, and now I've done it. I knew it was a good project, so I didn't give up. I kept moving forward."

Kind of like the prospectors she profiled.