Beans or oatmeal, with a side of sand
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EC: What the French Voyageurs Ate for Breakfast
Credit: Photo by Ron Erwin via Getty Images

On the morning of September 1, 1976, a collection of two dozen men emerged blearily from their tents on a beach outside Brighton, Ontario. Unlike the more traditional ridge or dome tents commonly seen in campgrounds across North America, these shelters were made without any poles or colorful fabric. Instead, a simple length of canvas was stretched across the top of a 20-foot-long handmade canoe. This was no accident or stint of improvisation: These tents and the men sleeping inside them were crafted to look exactly like the French explorers who had passed by this stretch of Lake Ontario 300 years earlier. These 23 men—16 of whom were teenagers recently graduated from high school—were recreating the 3,300-mile canoe journey of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, the first European ever to reach the end of the Mississippi River in 1681. And they were doing it with as much historical accuracy as possible, down to the breakfast foods they ate every morning for eight months.

The voyage was organized by Chicago-area French teacher Reid Lewis, in celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial. What had started as a harebrained idea—why spend so much time focusing on British history when the French explored large parts of what became the U.S. first?—gradually morphed into a real voyage, sweeping everyone up in its path. The costumes, the French voyageur songs, the terrible food—all of it was meant to educate and entertain people in equal measures. The teenagers participating spent two years training for the trek, learning the history of La Salle in order to give presentations along the route. Crowds across Canada and the United States would be watching them the whole way, which meant their level of authenticity would be critiqued whenever they were in front of an audience.

A curly-haired teenager named Gary Braun had been one of the first to rouse himself that morning. As cook for his unit of eight men, he had to be up at the same time as the unit’s fire-starter, who would collect wood and get it blazing with the help of flint and steel. Unfortunately, that day there wasn’t much Braun could do to get the crew nutritionally fueled before settling off for eight hours of paddling. All that was left of their dried goods were the beans they’d cooked the night before, a depressing breakfast if he’d ever seen one. Most of the time they had oatmeal or cornmeal mush to cook up in the cast iron pots carried by all three units. Although to be honest, Braun wasn’t a huge fan of those breakfast foods, either.

“I don’t eat oatmeal, I never did,” Braun remembered later. “For eight months I lived on bannock. I made breakfast for everybody else, I just don’t like hot cereal. Maybe it’s a texture thing.” And the texture, like the taste, was almost always terrible, thanks to the sand that blew in while the men were cooking, or that was leftover from scrubbing the pots out the night before. They’d learned to chew gingerly to avoid crunching down too hard on the siliceous fragments.

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Credit: Photo by flickr user peupleloup

But Braun’s dislike of certain breakfast foods was to the benefit of others, like Clif Wilson, who ate anything and everything. Once the pickier eaters had been identified, they were followed during morning meals by other crew members. The hungry scavengers swarmed the more fastidious eaters like a pack of vultures swooping low over an exhausted animal. No matter how much they all ate, there never seemed to be enough food.

The original voyageurs—French canoeists of the 17th-19th centuries who paddled more often for profit than for exploration—have almost mythical status in parts of Canada and America. Like French versions of Jack London’s heroes, the voyageurs lived in the wild for months at a time, risking life and limb to trade furs and other goods with Native Americans. There was the constant threat of attacks by unfriendly tribes, the risk of drowning (despite working on the water, few of the voyageurs knew how to swim), frostbite or freezing to death during the winter, and, of course, starvation. The men signed three-to-five year contracts, offering their service to wealthy business owners in exchange for food, shelter, wages, and equipment (which included one blanket, one shirt, one pair of pants, and occasionally a small ration of tobacco). For this they were expected to work approximately 16 hours per day, paddling the rivers and lakes of North America or portaging when land impeded their route.

Mornings for 17th-century voyageurs usually began between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m, without the benefit of coffee or any other stimulants—though sometimes they got drams of rum to start a particularly rough day of work. Breakfast came after about three hours of paddling, and was usually eaten on the go.

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The 20th-century explorers didn’t rise quite as early as 3 a.m., and almost always at breakfast before they started paddling. This break from historic tradition was partly to do with safety; there were no safety boats or Coast Guard vessels traveling with them, so if something happened they were on their own, and paddling in daylight was far safer than paddling in the dark. It was also because of their schedules. Unlike La Salle’s voyageurs, who could go weeks without seeing other humans, these modern travelers gave presentations for dozens of communities along their route, and so had to reach each new city as planned in advance.

But during one brief stretch of the reenactment expedition, the men were able to live by the rhythms of early voyageur life. As they paddled through Georgian Bay, the men saw hardly anyone for weeks, and they set off at first light, paddling for several hours before stopping for a breakfast of oatmeal, cornmeal, or beans. It was beautiful, remote, and felt almost as if they were living in the 17th century. But the allure of “real” food was constant.

Crew member Chuck Campbell remembered trying to find their way past the stony islands one day, when the crew was—as usual—tired and hungry. “There were all these summer homes around there. We pulled up to one, John went around back and was looking for something on the map, he comes back and says, ‘Boys, the people in here invited us in for the sausages and hotcakes.’ And we're like okay, and he goes, ‘Just kidding.’ He almost had a mutiny on his hands,” Campbell said years later.

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The food for the original voyageurs depended largely on where the men happened to be, and the season of the year. One observer recorded that a voyageur’s daily allowance of food included no more than a quart of Indian maize and one pound of grease. On other occasions they had pemmican (a greasy dried-meat mixture), wild oats and wheat, and dried meat or fish. On rare occasions hunting was permitted, and the men could catch everything from wildfowl to bears. But as one historian notes, “Voyageur brigades frequently impeded their own hunting and Aboriginal hunting endeavors by the great noise and commotion created by their travel.” In the most dire of circumstances, the men gathered moss from rocks, then boiled it to make a boullion. This meal was called tripe de roche, and was a desperate attempt to stave off starvation.

Best of all for the voyageurs of old and their 20th-century counterparts were feasts held by people who lived in the regions they traveled through. For the historic voyageurs, this could mean yet more corn and wild game at feasts thrown by Native Americans, but it might also mean fresh fruit and vegetables and even delicacies like fruit paste made into the shape of turkeys, humans, bison and deer.

For the modern voyageurs, breakfast feasts along their route were offered by supporters who were impressed by the young men and wanted to see them complete their voyage. These meals included more recognizable fare: pancakes and eggs, sausage, bacon, cereal, and donuts. The highly processed starches and proteins were sometimes more than their tastebuds could bear after weeks of nothing but unseasoned oats, cornmeal, and beans.

“I would say that now we’re getting ‘sweeted out,’” crew member Bob Kulick wrote in his journal after some friendly civilians brought brownies and cookies for the crew at the end of October 1976. “We went from eating no sweets to eating a lot within a month.”

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But even when it was too rich after their bland diet, none of the food from kind strangers required cooking in dutch ovens—and it rarely had sand or grit in it.

Today, 40 years after the expedition took them across North America, the men still gather for reunions, and the breakfast food is never so monotonous as it once was. At one such rendezvous, despite camping in a Wisconsin forest (this time in modern tents), there were eggs and bacon and tortillas for breakfast. Of course everything was served with a heap of nostalgia.

“After the trip Marc Lieberman and I said, ‘We like that bannock so much, let's make some,’” remembered Kulick, who’d been 18 when the trip began. “We made it and we threw it all out, it was horrible. But on the trip it was the best thing we ate.”

Despite the horrendous food, the exhausting physical toll, and the occasional arguments, the expedition remains a cornerstone of each participant’s life. It was an opportunity to take great risks, to reject modernity and test themselves against the voyageurs of the past, and to discover what they were capable of—including surviving on a diet of oatmeal, cornmeal, beans and peas.