2018.04.18 Guest Column: Dan Green

Lewis, Clark, and Rodent Tails

I looked through half a dozen files that start with btw expecting to find some column ideas. Instead I found a complete column written by my brother.


It wasn't long ago that I read a collection of entries from the journals of Lewis and Clark. It inspired me to write this report about some wild ways to eat and stay healthy in the hinterlands.

When traveling across the continent in the early 1800s, the Lewis and Clark expedition didn’t have the luxury of eating boxed cornflakes for breakfast. Nor could they stop at a pizzeria when hungry. On the other hand, they had porcupines. 

On a September day in South Dakota, 1804, Meriwether Lewis caught a porcupine and wrote this: “The flesh of this anamal is a pleasant and whoalsome food – the quills had not yet attained their usual length.” So in the absence of Howard Johnson's along the turnpike, they found prickly rodents to chow down on. Maybe the quills were used as toothpicks after the meal. 

Though food was often scarce on this trip, sometimes it was there in abundance. For example, this is what William Clark wrote from Nebraska in August 1804: “This being my birth day I order’d a Saddle of fat Vennison, an Elk fleece & a Bevertail to be cooked and a Desert of Cheries, Plumbs, Raspberries Currents and grapes of a Supr. Quality.”   

That's quite a feast. When is the last time someone surprised you with a birthday beavertail? Beaver was especially prized by the travelers. Here's Lewis again, in May of the next year. I think this was from Montana. “The flesh of the beaver is esteemed a delecacy among us; I think the tale a most delicious morsal, when boiled it resembles in flavor the fresh tongues and sounds of the codfish.”

I wasn't sure what he meant by the “sounds” of the codfish. A little research revealed that a codfish sound is the animal's swim bladder. That's the little sack that fills with air and controls buoyancy. So here's a fact you learned in “By the Way” that you can use to amaze and impress your friends—boiled beaver tail tastes similar to codfish air bladder. 

Some animals that we wouldn't consider eating today were fair game when surviving on the frontier. In October 1805, the expedition was heading west on the Columbia River toward the Pacific Ocean. There were fish to be had in the river, but not everyone liked fish. Here's expedition member Patrick Gass: “Most of our people having been accustomed to meat, do not relish the fish, but prefer dog meat; which, when well cooked, tastes very well.”

What if a traveler gets a stomach ache after a meal? Needless to say, when traveling through undeveloped territory, there are no clinics, hospitals or pharmacies. The expedition was forced to improvise medical treatment. 

In June 1805, Lewis made this sad complaint. “I was taken with such violent pain in the in-testens that I was unable to partake of the feast of marrowbones.” As an experiment, he took twigs from a chokecherry shrub and boiled them in water “until a strong black decoction of an astringent bitter taste was produced.” 

He drank a pint each hour until it was gone and reports that afterwards he was entirely relieved of pain. Don't try this at home. Maybe it was just drinking lots of boiled water that helped him and not the twigs.

Some of the medical care was just plain brutal. Clark reports: “Capt. Lewis took off the Toes of one foot of the Boy who got frost bit some time ago.” Other treatments reflected the state of medical care at that time in history. One of the party became ill and this is what Lewis had to say: “His pulse were very full and I therefore bled him plentifully from which he felt great relief. I had no other instrument with which to perform this operation but my pen knife, however, it answered very well.”

Yikes! There are many references in the journals to bleeding people who are sick. Bloodletting was common, having been practiced for more than 2,000 years. If anyone tells you, “This treatment must be good, because people have done it for thousands of years!” just think about bloodletting. 

I have a tip for you. According to a recipe I found, soak your beavertails overnight before frying them. Season with mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce.