History, tragedy and recipes in ‘Donner Party Cookbook’ | SierraSun.com

History, tragedy and recipes in ‘Donner Party Cookbook’

Paul Raymore

Hundreds of books have been written about the Donner Party, their arduous journey across the continent, and the ultimate tragedy that took place in what is now the Truckee area.

With so much historical attention focused on one group of pioneers, what could possibly be missing from the historical record?

Recipes, according to Terry Del Bene, Ph.D., the recent author of the “Donner Party Cookbook: A Guide to Survival on the Hastings Cutoff,” published by Horse Creek Publications, Inc.

With a title like the “Donner Party Cookbook,” Del Bene’s book is sure to get its fair share of double takes; however, readers who get beyond the cover will find a pretty standard retelling of the Donner Party history along with 36 recipes for hearty meals common among the 19th century pioneers on the emigrant trails.

Del Bene argues that the startling title is merely a ploy to get readers who might otherwise not be interested in the Donner Party’s history to pick up the book.

“A lot of the stuff I like to do for writing is to reach out to folks who aren’t traditional history readers and get people who normally wouldn’t pick up a history book to pick it up,” he said in an interview last week, adding, “I’m trying to trick people into reading history again.”

Del Bene holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and makes his home in Wyoming, where he belongs to several historical societies. He has been interested in the history and lifestyle of the early emigrants to the West, and especially what the conditions were like on the trail.

The “Donner Party Cookbook” grew out of his experience giving living history demonstrations to groups of people in which he would recreate many of the dishes that were popular on the trail during the 19th century.

Dishes like buffalo stew, mutton soup, lumpy dicks and corn dodgers appear throughout the pages of the book, lending insight into the realities of daily life on the trail.

Del Bene compiled the recipes for the book from a collection of 19th century cookbooks, and he has personally tried each one and refined them for today’s kitchens.

He hopes that readers will be excited to try some of the recipes in the book and even offers instructions on how to throw your own Donner party (hint: do it outdoors in the wintertime for added realism).

“I recommend people try the recipes and I’m always looking for new things to try myself. It really is a fascinating story,” he said.

And while historically speaking, due to a lack of ingredients, the Donner Party did not do so well living on the recipes Del Bene includes in the book, he warns that the Donner Party diet is not for those looking to lose weight.

“A warning I’ll give everybody is it’s about a 5,000-calorie-a-day diet tailored for what they needed for walking along the trail in the 19th century,” he said. “You have to do the Donner Party exercise program if you want to take weight off while you’re on the diet.”

The Donner Party Cookbook is available at Barnes & Noble bookstores and online, at Amazon.com, from the Nevada Historical Society and at the Horse Creek Publications Web site: http://www.horsecreekpublications.com. Phone orders are also accepted at (405) 364-9647.