A Brief History of Cobbler

We picked blueberries on Tuesday, so if I’m going to do that cobbler, I’d better get cracking. Those berries aren’t getting any younger. But then using fresh fruit to make cobbler isn’t what you’d call “authentic”. The fact is that the first cobblers didn’t contain any fresh anything, they were simply “cobbled” together from odds and ends by Western trail cooks.

Today we take fresh fruit for granted, but once upon a time there wasn’t terribly much of it, especially in the West. Prior to the late 1800’s, the vast majority of America’s fruit came from the East, where apples, peaches, plums, cherries, berries and the like grew abundantly. Yet there were plenty of people living and working West of the Mississippi, and they liked sweet fruit desserts too. For them, fruit mostly came either dried, preserved in syrup, or in some cases canned.

As for ovens, there weren’t any, at least not on the trail. That didn’t stop people from baking, however. They simply used camp fire Dutch ovens (though I’m not so sure they stacked them like that), which could handle anything short of a turkey. Yet work space was at a premium, so most cooks shied away from pies and yeast breads in favor of easy, chemically-leavened quick breads.

Here again it’s important to note that back in the 1800’s people viewed chemically-leavened baked goods in the same way we now view astronaut ice cream: interesting, not particularly tasty, pretty much a food of last resort. The alkaline, chemical taste of baking powder was considered harsh, especially to people who grew up eating yeast-raised bakery bread. But when you’re on the trail or eking out a living on a homestead, you have to make do — and even then that meant eating out of boxes and cans.

An old-time peach cobbler probably came together pretty much that way. A can or jar of peaches in syrup was poured into a pan (alternately rehydrated dried fruit mixed with white or maple sugar). Blobs of biscuit dough were plopped on top and the whole thing was baked in a Dutch oven until the dough was browned. Bing, bang, boom. Looked at in that way, this peach cobbler is probably more authentic, at least in spirit, than this one.

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