Workers of the Writers Program, Work Projects Administration, compiled information on Nebraska pioneer foodways during the Depression. They noted that corn, because it was cheaper and easier to grow than other crops, composed the staple diet. Sowbelly (salt pork), cornmeal, and coffee were almost always on the pioneer table. Housewives made many different dishes using corn, but it still became monotonous and unappetizing.
They also noted that early Nebraska cooking often made use of substitutes for scarce or expensive items such as coffee and sugar. Coffee was sold green, and customers had to roast and grind it themselves. When they couldn’t get to a store or were short of money, a substitute coffee was used. Mrs. Nicholas Sharp, who lived in Gage County as early as 1867, remembered mixing cornmeal and sorghum together until it made a gummy dough and then baking it until it browned. It was pulverized before being placed in a coffee pot with water. The only resemblance this mixture had to boiled coffee was the color. “Corn coffee” was made by baking a whole ear of corn until it was burnt black, and putting it into the coffee pot.
Sometimes, a substitute was used to stretch the real coffee grounds. Chicory was so used; and during the 1890s was raised as a cash crop in northeast Nebraska. Another recipe consisted of mixing two parts of dried peas to one part of coffee, producing a beverage some found preferable to “straight” coffee. Other coffee substitutes included parched barley, rye, and dried carrots.
Little canning was done in the 1870s because white sugar was both scarce and expensive. Later it came into more common use until almost everything that required sweetening contained sugar in place of sorghum or honey. Sorghum, prepared at local sorghum mills, was the prevalent substitute for sugar for many years. It was used in pies, jellies, custards, bread, and coffee, although honey and maple sugar, with their more delicate flavors, often took its place when they could be obtained.
On some occasions, when not even sorghum was available, boiled-down watermelon juice was used. A Mr. Swanson, a Boone County resident during the 1880s, remembered another sugar substitute: clean corn cobs boiled down for their syrup. Modern recipes for corn cob jelly were undoubtedly based on this practice.