Cooking Like a Homesteader

When America was young and homesteaders were still learning how to thrive here

Story, Recipes and Photos by Sara Sullivan

I enjoy learning about history. Especially during the time when America was young and homesteaders were still learning how to thrive here. Recently I read a book entitled Culinary History of the Finger Lakes: From the Three Sisters to Riesling, written by area native Laura Winter Falk. It details the culinary past of the Finger Lakes region starting with the indigenous people all the way up to modern day.

The book is filled with information about how people learned to utilize local produce. In the chapter, “The War, Postwar Homesteads, and When the Apple Was King”, Laura Winter Falk details how early homesteaders learned to thrive in the region after the Revolutionary War. This occurred in no small part to the Haudenosaunee, specifically the Cayuga and Seneca, who taught settlers how to use their regional produce.

One thing the homesteaders learned was how to make basic cornbread. They would cook it in a lard greased skillet over an open fire.

I tried using some leftover bacon fat to grease the tin for my cornbread recipe, and it worked great. These early settlers were experienced with seasonal outdoor cooking. If they were to make my rustic stew it would be with similar ingredients but would have been cooked over the fire in a pot hanging from an iron trammel instead of an electric slow cooker.

Two other crops that the early homesteaders of this region relied on were apples and buckwheat. I thought it was interesting how many different recipes they had for the bountiful apple crop, which had originated from seeds that were brought from Europe. Buckwheat was also a staple crop for early Finger Lakes inhabitants because it grows well in poor soil and can be harvested twice a year. These ingredients inspired my apple pie recipe.

After reading this book, I decided to reach out to the author, Laura Winter Falk, to talk to her about my idea for this column. She was happy to discuss it and was kind enough to pair my recipes with some lovely beverages. I am so grateful for her input and contributions. I also want to thank my uncle, Tom Imars, who is a revolutionary war reenactor/town crier. He listened to my recipe ideas and gave me so much information as to what people would eat and how they would cook during that time. So, please enjoy these recipes that I created in homage to our early Finger Lakes settlers. It was fun to imagine that they might have been cooking up something similar.

Sara Sullivan is a food photographer and recipe developer that was raised in Ithaca, New York. Follow her on Instagram @SaraLynn.Bakes for more recipes.

Rustic Beef Stew with Fall Vegetables
This slow cooker recipe is perfect for a busy day. Just prepare the ingredients, set it and forget it. The result will be a flavorful and tender stew that is ready to be eaten by dinner time. I highly recommend serving it over mashed potatoes or egg noodles.
Check out this recipe
Sweet Potato Cornbread Muffins with Maple Cinnamon Butter
Peel, boil and mash your sweet potato in advance. One small-medium sweet potato should do the trick. You could also pierce it with a fork and cook it in the microwave for about 5 minutes or until soft. Then scoop out the contents and mash them up.
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Buckwheat Apple Pie with Apple Cider Molasses
I used juicy and slightly tart Cortland apples for this recipe, however feel free to substitute your own favorite variety. Be sure to start making the apple cider molasses right after the pie starts baking, since it takes some time to reduce.
Check out this recipe


Culinary History of the Finger Lakes: from the Three Sisters to Riesling, by Laura Winter Falk, American Palate, a Division of The History Press, 2014, pp. 33–47.

Annual Report. United States, University of the State of New York, 1912.

Whole Grain Council, Oldways. “Buckwheat – December Grain of the Month.” Buckwheat – December Grain of the Month | The Whole Grains Council, 2021,

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