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What's for dinner?

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Replica stove

While archaeologists tend to be interested in most aspects of the past, it shouldn’t be surprising that a huge chunk of our time goes into thinking about food.

While archaeologists tend to be interested in most aspects of the past, it shouldn’t be surprising that a huge chunk of our time goes into thinking about food. Today, social media abounds with food pics and Instagram pages devoted to drool-worthy images of everything edible under the sun. But this dedication to documenting what some would argue is a mundane aspect of everyday life has not always been there.

Fortunately for us, traces of shared meals survive on our public lands as a reminder to the many people who have walked and worked and lived on them in the past.

With the absence of historical mealtime snaps, we have to rely on the physical objects that meal preparation and consumption leaves behind. The material culture of food can provide a wealth of information: We can use scatters of rusty old cans to consider meals in remote work camps, seeds and microscopic pollen to identify the fruits and vegetables that graced the table, and preserved faunal material to determine whether fish, poultry, pork, or beef was on the menu. Foodways can also be revealed through serving and storage vessels like plates and canning jars, as well as the ovens and stoves used for cooking. When added together, these clues can provide viable insights into cuisine, culture, market access, and much more.

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Archaeologist Jaqueline Cheung with her illustration of a stove excavated at the Ah Heng Mining Com-plex in 2019.

The Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and our project partners in the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project (OCDP) have excavated several rock features believed to be associated with cooking on Chinese mining and railroad camps. This dataset has allowed us to better understand these features—in particular how they were made and how they worked. On the July episode of Underground History we spoke with Don Hann of the Malheur National Forest about his recent foray into experimental archaeology.

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Don Hann using the recreated wok stove.

Using evidence gathered from the archaeological features, Hann built a small prototype of the stacked rock stoves we commonly find as part of this summer’s Passport in Time (PIT) project on the Malheur National Forest. In preparation for putting the stove to the test, Hann also considered another artifact frequently found in association with Chinese diaspora sites on the forest: modified cans.

Originally used to transport vegetables or fruit out to the remote camps, once the contents were used, some cans had holes punched into the bottom and were repurposed. Archaeologists have been puzzling over these artifacts for years… are they strainers? For making noodles? For laundry? All are possible, but Hann had another idea: Could these cans have been used to grow beansprouts? After doing some research, Hann punched holes in the base of modern cans, purchased some organic mung beans, and the experiment began. Participants in the PIT project, under the direction of SOULA alumna Tatiana Watkins, added the beans to the modified cans and strained them twice a day over the course of four days. The results were impressive: within a short period of time, a small amount of shelf stable dry mung beans were transformed into an abundance of fresh and nutritious sprouts.

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Passport in Time project participants prepping the mung beans.

The sprouts, paired with a few extra veggies and some bacon, were cooked in a cast iron wok (also similar to fragments recovered archaeologically) over the recreated stove. To everyone’s surprise, it worked perfectly!

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Archaeologist Beverly Clement enjoying the results of the experiment.

While experimental archaeology can be fun—and delicious—it also provides us with tangible data about how archaeological features and objects could have been used in the past. In this instance, evidence supported our theories that the stacked rock stoves found associated with Chinese diaspora sites across the state were built using technology consistent with modern day ‘Rocket Stoves.’ These low tech stoves are designed to burn small diameter fuel (sticks, pinecones, and brush, etc.) by controlling the flow of air and creating an efficient combustion chamber. Our stacked rock version achieves this through its horseshoe-shaped wall with strategically placed vertical stones at the opening to direct airflow. The result is an expediently constructed stove made out of free and readily available materials that can cook food quickly using only a small amount of fuel. It is no wonder it was the preferred cooking method for hundreds of Chinese Oregonians in the 19th and early 20th century.

While Hann and the OCDP team is continuing to expand and refine this research, the experiment helped us to connect with the people behind these historical objects. These people were creative in adapting familiar foods and cooking techniques to a new environment. In addition, Chinese migrants were not the only ones stacking rocks to make dinner out in the woods. The remnants of Native American camas ovens can be recognized archaeologically, and distinctive beehive-shaped bread ovens survive on the landscape. These features are often misidentified as “Chinese Ovens,” but were actually made by Greek and Italian railroad workers in the early 20th century. In summary, food is not only critical for survival, but is also deeply entwined with identity and culture. Fortunately for us, traces of shared meals survive on our public lands as a reminder to the many people who have walked and worked and lived on them in the past.