Photography: “Captains Lewis & Clark holding a Council with the Indians”/Library of Congress

The wild game and root vegetables were critical to the success of one of the country’s greatest expeditions.

Food was more than a means of survival for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery. From the beginning, it was central to the mission of finding the most efficient passage to the Pacific and establishing friendly commerce with the territory’s inhabitants. Even President Thomas Jefferson made a point of directing the expedition captains to note the “food, clothing & domestic accommodations” of the tribes encountered.

And catalog they did, beginning with the 7 tons of provisions they set off with. According to Clark’s journal, their foodstuffs included 11 bags of hulled corn, 30 half barrels of flour, one keg of hog’s lard, one bag of coffee, two bags of sugar, and 193 pounds of portable soup (the bouillon cube’s antecedent).

“The food and agricultural potential of the Louisiana Purchase lands was part and parcel of President Jefferson’s plans for the region,” explains Jeff LaRock, manager of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana. “Knowing about soil profiles, growing seasons, and surveys of native wildlife and plants was part of the process to begin the development of the West in the way Jefferson wanted things to proceed.”

The explorers made note of Native American ingredients and food preparations. Regarding white apple root — better known as timpsula to American Indians who ate it boiled, mashed, and mixed with bison marrow and berries for a pudding — Lewis liked it enough to recommend it as a substitute for an imported Spanish delicacy, truffles morella. Such epicurean exchanges with tribes were essential to diplomacy. “Trading for additional food supplies was usually a top priority for the expedition, and shared meals were a near-universal element in the expedition’s diplomatic efforts,” LaRock says.

Photography: “Captain Clark and his men shooting Bears”/Library of Congress

By the end of the expedition, the Corps of Discovery had consumed bison, bears, dogs, elk, a wolf, and berries among other wild game, fruits, fish, and root vegetables. Corn, beans, and squash, the foundation of many Native American diets, were essential for the Corps’ survival. Ultimately, it truly was the food that paved the way for westward expansion — not just in miles and acres, but also in the development of the culinary culture of America.

From the May/June 2015 issue

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