Five Hundred Forty Loaves of Bread

In this Time of Coronavirus, there’s been an uptick in reading, puzzle piecing, game playing, and bread baking as people find themselves with extra hours in a day. My husband, a bread baker before the pandemic, is now scrambling to find flour. Who knew this run-of-the-mill commodity would become a prized—and sometimes fought over—commodity?

On the Oregon-California Trail from the early 1840s to early 1860s, when the westward migration was at its zenith, bread baking was a daily endeavor. More than bacon, beans, coffee, and even ammunition, every wagon outfit was loaded with more than 400 pounds of flour for the approximately six-month journey from Independence, Missouri to points west: Oregon City, Oregon or San Francisco, California.

Three times per day, once before supper, once during supper, and once before retiring for the evening to a lumpy bedroll under a wagon, emigrants—women, mostly—baked three loaves of sourdough bread a day. The first loaf, baked in a Dutch oven over an open fire, was enjoyed hot to accompany a simple supper of salt pork and beans (or buffalo or fresh game, if overland travelers were lucky that day). The second and third loaves were saved for the following day’s breakfast and mid-day meal, often called dinner or nooning.

If you do the simple math, that’s three loaves a day for 180 days. Five hundred forty loaves of bread.

Now, I’m not a complainer by nature, so if I happen to grumble about being sheltered in place for months on end during this COVID-19 crisis, I remember that I’m not responsible for foraging for and cooking every meal from scratch. I grocery shop once per week; my larder is filled with staples and I can whip up a meal with items on hand. Plus, I’ve got the luxury to order take-out a couple of times per week.

The characters in my new novel, Answer Creek, find themselves stranded on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains over the horrific winter of 1846-47. Members of the Donner Party were forced to eat blankets, book covers, and shoe leather to survive before some descended into eating the frozen remains of each other. In comparison (there is no comparison, really), I have no—zip, zilch, nada—complaints.

What they would have done for a loaf of bread. Or a slice. Or a few crumbs.

It puts in all into perspective, doesn’t it?

If you haven’t joined the bread-baking craze yet, there are as many varieties as there are stars in the sky. Now you just have to find the flour.