For thousands of years, the Pacific Northwest was one of the few places in the world where there was no agriculture.
“The Native Americans were foragers,” said Candice Goucher, WSU Vancouver history professor, during a recent talk at the Clark County Historical Museum.
Living in a lush landscape teeming with wildlife, the native inhabitants didn’t need to plant anything. What they couldn’t find locally, they got in trade, since the area was always a commercial hub.
“They didn’t become farmers until the Europeans arrived,” Goucher said in an article from the Clark County Columbian newspaper.
Once the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post in 1824, the newcomers opened up a whole new world of farming and food.
“Fort Vancouver reflects the essence of the Pacific Northwest as a multicultural community,” Goucher said.
Workers from 30 ethnic groups and nationalities brought their own notions of home cooking. There were French, English, Scots, Irish, Hawaiians and a large variety of Native Americans including Chinook, Nootka, Chehalis, Iroquois and Cree.
An 1844 fort inventory, Goucher said, included coffee from Cuba and Java, spices from Asia and South America, 19 pounds of chocolate, tropical limes and 142 gallons of French cognac.
There was even a French bakery, although a primary product was not delicate pastry but twice-baked sea biscuits known as hardtack.
As Americans headed west on the Oregon Trail, a few brought some of the earliest tinned food.
“They had to use a hatchet or a hammer and chisel” to open the tins, Goucher said. “And a lot of it was tainted.”
The lack of food played a role in later migrations, as famines in their home countries brought in many new Americans.
“Look at the 1900 Census, and 45 percent of Washington’s residents were foreign born,” Goucher said.
As the nation industrialized, Americans were further removed from the sources of their food. Even 100 years ago, families worried that their kids didn’t know where food came from.
“In the early 20th century, kids didn’t know how to pluck chickens,” Goucher said. So their parents sent them to camp to learn.