Making breakfast wasn’t so easy back in the day |

Making breakfast wasn’t so easy back in the day

Photo courtesy Truckee Donner Historical SocietyMaking a hearty breakfast in Truckee during a heavy winter in the 1880s wasn't so easy. This photo was taken from the southeast looking at Front Street. The current Truckee Hotel is the large building on the right.

Life in the winter in Truckee is pretty easy now. Getting breakfast is no big deal most mornings. It wasn’t the case in the 1870s. The Truckee Republican in January 1876 ran a story of a typical morning. That winter was not a particularly bad winter, so imagine what a really bad winter’s breakfast would take to get going.

The story goes as follows:

Mr. Brown is a true Truckee man, but his wife usually gets his breakfast ready. One morning she was sick and decided to stay in bed. He said he would make breakfast, and as he had cooked in the mines years ago, he thought it would be easy. He was a good hand at making pancakes and steak.

He dressed quickly, putting on two pair of denim pants, two wool cardigan shirts and a warm fur hat. He squeezed into his new fur lined, rubber soled work boots that were so cold it almost took his breath away. At least he had bought a new pair at Fred Wilbert’s boot shop this fall. Good thing he was working indoors at the Truckee Lumber Company factory this winter.

Looking at the inside thermometer, it was 15 degrees below zero. He found the kitchen floor covered with snow that had drifted in through the cracks in the walls. He swept it up and threw it outside. He would have washed himself, but the water pipes were frozen, as was the basin drain pipe.

He started a fire in the old cracked woodstove, but it wouldn’t draw smoke out. The house started to fill with smoke. He sighed, remembering that general store owner Fred Burckhalter had tried to sell him a new wood stove a month ago. The chimney was filled with powder snow, and it took a few minutes to clear that snow. It took three tries to get a fire going, but by then Mr. Brown had three toes, two fingers, and an ear frozen.

He intended to have a good breakfast no matter what it took, but the potatoes were frozen solid. He slipped as he reached for the can containing the sourdough pancake batter his wife kept handy, and the can fell on the floor. It didn’t spill because it was as frozen as ice cream.

So he thought “no flapjacks either.” The day-old cream from Varney’s dairy up the road was frozen, so his coffee would be black and strong today. He would have to settle for eggs, steak and coffee. He wasn’t that hungry anymore.

He spread out the fire in the stove, and laid the steak from Joe Marzen’s Truckee Meat Market directly on the hot coals. The steak was about as pliable as a pine board, but he thought the fire would solve that problem.

In a minute, the steak was brown on one side so he flipped it over to cook the other side. He smiled at the thought of how easy it was to cook frozen beefsteaks. His wife had it easy, he thought. He put the steaming steak on a cold plate, and decided he needed eggs to go with the steak. The eggs had come from the store of his good friend Hamlet Davis.

With a hatchet, he cracked off a chunk of William Prosser’s sweet mountain butter and put it in the frying pan, watching it thaw and melt. He took an egg and carefully tapped it on the side of the frying pan. The shell seemed very hard and it didn’t crack. He hit it twice more, a lot harder each time, but no cracks. The egg was a frozen oval chunk of ice.

He lost all patience and threw it against the wall, but that chunk of ice rebounded and playfully skidded across the kitchen floor. He picked it and laid it on the coals where the steak had been. He watched it get brown, and then black where the coals touched it. He had a gleam of triumph in his eyes. He would show the egg he was no chicken.

When the lower half was burnt to a cinder, he pulled it out and split it with his hatchet. He had nothing but a piece of baked ice. The lower half was burnt to a coal, the upper half was ice. As a scientific experiment, it was a success, to a hungry man it was a failure. He threw the egg outside, frustrated with his attempt at the simple task of cooking an egg, but he didn’t give up.

He happily figured he would chop up the eggs and fry them. He cornered another egg and split it open with his trusty hatchet, then chopped it up into little chunks, but he couldn’t get the shell off. He thought it really wouldn’t make much difference, egg in a half shell being considered a delicacy in fine restaurants. Bully joke it was.

He laid the pieces in the hot butter in the pan. Instead of frying, each piece swelled up, became watery and looked totally inedible. He didn’t really want eggs anymore, so he decided to forget them. He was worried about being late for work now. Steak and coffee would have to do.

He would have made some toast, but he had forgotten to stop by Sherman’s City Bakery for bread on his way home last night. He had remembered to stop at William Hurd’s Saloon for a drink. Maybe that was part of why his wife was still in bed today.

He hunted up the coffee pot, but his sick wife had left it two-thirds full of yesterday’s coffee. Now it was ice, but he didn’t have the time to thaw it out and make fresh brew. The shape of the coffee pot precluded the possibility of getting the ice out. He was compelled to omit the coffee and the pot flew out the back door. He’d buy a new one from Frank Steven’s tin shop after work.

The steak was all that was left. Many a king hadn’t had steak for breakfast. He made a dive for the beef with his knife and fork. He felt it bounce off and thought he had hit a bone. Bones weren’t usually found in the fleshy part of a round steak.

He stabbed it again with the same result. Close examination disclosed that that the steak had browned on both sides without thawing out the inside. He chopped at it with the same handy hatchet and found no part of it that wasn’t rock hard.

The handle of the hatchet cracked from the cold. Now he would have to pick up a new handle at the Sisson Wallace store after work. He gave up on the steak. He also gave up on the dishes. The merchants of Front Street would get some of his hard earned money later today.

When the snow disappears next spring, a frying pan, a steak, a coffeepot, a hatchet, and a round cheese-like piece of pancake dough may be found outside Mr. Brown’s back door.

After this when Mrs. Brown is sick, he’ll lie in bed until she recovers. He’ll go without breakfast.

The story shows how tough life was in winter in Truckee. The men were tough, but when you realize that this was what the women had to deal with every winter day, you realize the women were even tougher.

Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at The e-mail address is Leave a message at 582-0893.

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