In the Kitchen with Indie: A Brief History of Dog Food and How to Make Your Own

There once was a border collie from the Scottish Highlands who ate nothing but turnip greens and lived to be over 20 years old. Dogs in the 14th century ate bones and bread, goat milk and bean broth, meat, and eggs. In the latter half of the 19th century, dogs ate wheat meal, beetroots and beef blood. In the early 20th century, they ate horsemeat. Today, dogs eat a variety of assorted things ranging from buffalo to chicken, brown rice to broccoli, fruit to fish oil.

Ken-L was the first canned dog food debuting in 1920 and featured horse meat. They added beef in 1921. Still, a popular ingredient through the 1960’s, both horse meat and ground horse bone can be seen in the ingredient list on the mid-century can at right.

Since dogs were first domesticated over 12,000 years ago their diets have varied depending on geographic location, activity, and ownership. As descendants of wolves who eat mostly birds, fish, deer, rabbits, and other hoofed animals, dogs appetites have evolved to include vegetables, herbs, protein and grains making food options more than abundant and diverse today.

There has never before been a time in history where there has been so much choice available in the dog food industry.  From traditional shelf-stable canned and dried foods to fresh meat patties, freeze-dried jerky, frozen bones and a bouquet of vitamin supplements, feeding your dog today involves nothing more than practical understanding and common sense.

James Spratt, the father of food for dogs, commercially speaking. Photo courtesy of chestofbooks.com

We have this guy, James Spratt to thank for first coming up with the idea to commercialize dog food in the 1860’s. He invented the world’s first dog biscuit after he observed England’s seaside dogs fighting over hardtack biscuits that were cast-aside by sailors down at the docks. This ignited James’ interest in the idea of creating a whole canine meal that came in a compact shape, just like a biscuit – something that was easy to carry, easy to dispense and easy to store. Spratt’s Meat Fiberine Dog Cakes were born shortly after.

An 1876 ad for Spratt’s Meat Fribrine Dog Cakes.

The cakes became so popular many companies started making their own versions, thus creating competition and a burgeoning marketplace. Now, pet food is a $31 billion a year industry just in the U.S. alone and feeding your dog has gone from Spratt’s biscuits in the 19th century to basic canned meats in the 20th century to gourmet ready-to-eat dinners in the 21st century. That’s quite an evolution in less than 200 years.

With all this choice, it can be tricky to navigate all the options of what to feed your dog- especially if you walk down the pet food aisle at your local grocery store and see a bamboozlement of advertising with each brand declaring their food the best, the most nutritious, the most natural or organic or beneficial. You can feed your dog like a wild wolf or a pampered princess or a farm animal. You can spend $5.00 on a giant economy bag of dry dog food or $20.00 on a petite gourmet bag of artisan-crafted pellets. There’s canned food that comes in a solid lump with ingredients that you can’t pronounce and there are ready-to-eat meals in plastic tubs that resemble the beef stew you are making for your own dinner.

So which food does Indie, the enthusiastic taste-tester of the Vintage Kitchen eat? None of the above.

Instead, every day she gets a combination of fresh foods consisting of easy to gather ingredients that are readily available.  Indie is a sociable pup and meets a lot of people in her city travels on a day to day basis. If there is one comment that she receives most often it is how soft and shiny her coat feels.  It’s been described as everything from a plush blanket to a mink coat to a thick carpet. People think that she is completely pampered with lots of regular trips to the groomer but Indie is a tom-boy at heart and could care less about her pretty fur. She’s never been to the groomer, and she’s only had three baths ever, (each of which she totally hated). We attribute her great state – her glossy coat, her bright eyes, her abundant energy level and her eager appetite all to the food she eats.

 

By making her own dog food, we have the opportunity to eliminate preservatives, fillers, by-products and known skin-allergy causing ingredients like corn, wheat, and soy from her diet. We have better control over her overall health and can feed her the nutrition she needs based on weekly changes in her activity and lifestyle levels. That means on days she is more active, she gets more protein and more carbs to fuel all her running and jumping. On days she’s less active she gets more vegetables and less carbs so that she doesn’t put on sedentary weight and get lethargic. We have been feeding Indie this way for over five years now. Needless to say, she’s been an enthusiastic eater from her first bowl forward!

You might think that making your own dog food is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and expensive, but it is actually the complete opposite. As we learned above from dogs throughout history, their diet is pretty diverse just like ours.  All her dog food ingredients come from the same place where we shop for our food – the farmers market, the grocery store, etc.. It takes about one hour to prepare a week’s worth of food (up to 14 meals)  or 15 minutes a day if we decide to cook for her each night. Cost-wise on average, we spend about $10-$12 a week on the ingredients that make up her meals.

There are three main components to a healthy dog diet – protein, vegetables, and grains. Amounts of each vary depending on your dog’s size and activity level  (for example, the more active your pup is, the more protein they should eat), but every day, in every bowl Indie’s meal consists of at least one element from each of these three categories for balanced nutrition.

PROTEIN

Indie’s main source of protein is primarily salmon. Usually, it’s canned salmon that includes the skin and bones. Sometimes she eats fresh salmon or frozen as long as its wild-caught.  Occasional additions of chicken, eggs, beans and homemade broth also round out her main protein sources. Once every few months she’ll have a little bit of beef, pork, or lamb for variety.  There is a theory about serving your dog raw proteins but we always cook Indie’s (with the exception of the canned salmon) just to be on the safe side as far as bacteria. We cook her protein in one of three ways – sauteed in olive oil on the stove, poached in broth or baked in the oven.  Eggs are usually scrambled or hard-boiled. And beans are canned.

VEGETABLES

As a true gourmand, Indie loves most vegetables. Her regular rotation includes sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, apples, potatoes, carrots, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, parsley, pineapple, beets, celery,  pumpkin, zucchini, butternut squash, acorn squash, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, avocado, pears, collard greens, cabbage and okra. Her vegetables either come from the farmers market or the grocery store. She mostly eats what’s in season, except for sweet potatoes and apples which she eats pretty much year round. And while she eats all of these vegetables mentioned above, she doesn’t eat this whole list all at once. Generally, she eats 2-3 different types of vegetables in one meal.

GRAINS

Primarily her main grain is white rice but sometimes we’ll add in cooked oatmeal, barley, wild rice or quinoa for variety. White rice is better than brown rice because dogs have short digestive tracts (unlike people who have long digestive tracts) so rice passes through their system quite quickly. The main benefit of brown rice is that it acts like a scrub brush for the digestive system making it great for people but not necessary in dogs since it passes through too fast to benefit.

The part that takes the longest when in it comes to making homemade dog food is baking the potatoes (one hour in a 425-degree oven) and cooking the rice (15 minutes). While the potatoes are baking and the rice is cooking, we prepare the vegetables – by chopping them into bite-sized pieces, and either sauteeing, boiling or roasting them. We also use this time to boil the eggs, open the beans and/or cook the proteins as well.

By the time the potatoes are done – all the other dog food components are ready too. We let everything cool down to room temperature before adding all the ingredients together in one large mixing bowl and tossing it all to combine. When we make a big bach like this for the week, we divvy up the mixture into smaller, daily dose sized containers and store them in the fridge.

Indie’s dinnertime bowl consisting of 1/3 cup canned salmon, 3/4 cup cooked white rice, one sauteed carrot, one half of a hard-boiled egg, two finger-sized sweet potatoes (with skin), a handful of sauteed spinach and one small new potato (with skin).

MEASUREMENTS

Indie eats usually 1 1/2 cups of cooked rice, 2/3 cup of protein and 2-3 cups of vegetables per day. She eats twice a day – breakfast and dinner. She weighs 55 lbs and is moderately active as far as exercise.  What we feed her reflects her lifestyle and activity level so if you want to start making your own homemade dog food too, use it as a guide only and not specific measurements.  Adjustments and modifications will need to be made for your own dog’s size and energy level as well as how often you feed your dog per day and their own individual appetite preferences. Large dogs obviously need more food, small dogs less.

When we were visiting our friend’s house for the weekend, Indie let everyone know her true thoughts on the raw kale we newly introduced to her diet. No thank you!

PERSONALITY QUIRKS

One of the things that will become immediately apparent when you start making your own dog food is how quirky your buddy can be. For instance, Indie will only eat her kale if it is sauteed in a little bit of olive oil. If it’s included in her bowl raw, she’ll pick out all the pieces and lay them next to her bowl. Her not-so-subtle hint that kale is only great when it’s cooked!  She also usually likes most of her vegetables cooked unless they are finely grated like we sometimes do with raw carrots, celery, zucchini or broccoli. Usually, we just chop and boil, sautee, or oven-roast all of her vegetables until soft, but not mushy.

If you start making your own pup’s food, there are a few simple things to keep in mind when determining what’s good and bad for canine consumption…

A FEW FOODS NOT TO ADD

  • Never add salt or pepper to your pup’s protein while cooking.  (If you are using boneless, skinless chicken breasts or fresh fish cook them in olive oil instead of butter.)
  • Onions
  • Chocolate
  • Rhubarb
  • Spices
  • Apple seeds and cores
  • Raisins, grapes or plums
  • Lemons or Limes
  • Bones of any kind (except the ones in canned salmon are fine)

ADDITIONAL FUN THINGS TO ADD ON OCCASION IN MODERATION

  • Greek Yogurt
  • Peanut Butter
  • Olive Oil
  • Cheese
  • Applesauce
  • Bread
  • Nuts (finely chopped)

Basically, when it comes to cooking for your dog think of it like cooking for yourself. If you are making scrambled eggs for yourself for breakfast, portion some out for your pet too. If you are making steamed broccoli for your dinner, steam some extra for your pup or if you are making a traditional spinach salad for your lunch, chop up some extra spinach, bacon and egg for the dog bowl. You’ll discover how fun and creative cooking can be for both you and your pal.

If you are uncertain whether or not you want to switch your dog’s diet to a 100% homemade one – start small with baby steps and throw in a cooked egg or a few slices of apple in with their food and see how they like it and then expand little by little.

The nice thing about feeding your pup the food you make is that you can see results or benefits within a few days. Depending on how much fresh food you introduce, their coats will be shinier, their energy levels more balanced and their attention more focused (especially at mealtime!).  You will also be able to monitor their health by what’s going in and what’s coming out.  We have to pick up after Indie, since we live in the city so it’s a good opportunity to tell if everything is in balance and processing well. If her waste is runny or mucousy-looking rather then firm and solid then we know an ingredient is upsetting her stomach lining and we can quickly recall and identify which ingredients we’ve recently fed her and can adjust her fresh foods from there.

 

All in all, we hope that making your own dog food will be fun and enjoyable for both you and your pup.  If you already make your own homemade dog food, please share your story in the comments section below so that we can continue to learn together and create delicious meals for our wonderful companions. Indie is ALWAYS ready to test out a new recipe!

Cheers to our canine pals and to all the fresh dinners they inspire. Happy cooking!

Bacon, Montana & The Family Pie Crust: It’s Tradition Time!

If you are looking for a fun dessert to make for Easter dinner or you are heading out to someone else’s house for the holiday and want to bring something new (but old) along, we recommend the little known but amazingly delicious Rhubarb Custard Pie.  It has been an Easter tradition in my family since the 1960’s when my mom first started making it with the help of her husband’s grandfather’s homemade pie crust recipe and Betty Crocker’s 1950 Picture Cookbook.

Rhubarb in its natural state.

Rhubarb is one of those quirky vegetables. Some people call it pink celery. Understandably, it really does resemble the green hued variety with its long stalks and tufted green leaves. But rhubarb is actually part of the buckwheat family and celery is part of the parsnip family so their similarities end at face value.  Unlike the subtle soapy taste of celery, rhubarb is tart like a Granny Smith apple and more spongey in texture than a crisp stalk of celery. It’s ideal baking consistency is soft like a ripe pear with a bright white interior and a pale pink exterior. The general rule of thumb when it comes to selecting rhubarb for purchase is the firmer and redder the stalk the tarter the taste.  Ideally, you want something in-between – slightly spongy to the touch and a 40/60 ratio of stalks ranging from deep red to pale pink for dynamic flavor.

Two important factors go into making this pie a repeat favorite year after year – the filling and the pie crust.  Most people (and pie recipes) pair rhubarb with fresh strawberries, which is a good Spring combo since both are usually in season at the same time.  Sometimes though, these two put together can result in a watery pie which makes the crust soggy and each bite extra drippy. The secret addition to the rhubarb custard pie is the eggs. They act like a binder holding everything in place, so that you get all the sweet-tart taste of the filling without the thin and liquidy consistency. Betty Crocker’s 1950’s version is easy to prepare and always delicious.

The second important factor to this pie (and to all pies, really) is the homemade pie crust. It only takes about 10 minutes and four ingredients to make no-fail pie dough and it cooks beautifully and consistently every time.  Passed down through the generations, this recipe is so good it has been in active use in my family for almost 100 years thanks to this guy who taught everyone how to make it in the very beginning…

Bacon & Dolly Day in Montana circa 1950’s/1960’s

Meet Bacon Day and his wife Dolly. Bacon (yes, that’s his real name!) first moved to Montana in the 1920’s where he married his bride, Dolly, in Missoula and went straight to work in the rural mining town of Gold Creek, as the train depot clerk for Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was so eager to have Bacon join the team, that they gave he and Dolly two railcars to live in and set up homekeeping. Bacon was originally from St. Paul and Dolly from Seattle, so this railroad life was a whole new and exciting adventure for the newlyweds.

1930’s Northern Railroad travel poster

We don’t have any pictures of Dolly and Bacon in their rail car housing but we can imagine that it looked something like these two (now serving as luxury hotel accommodations in Montana)…

Or maybe it looked something like the rail car library built in 1926 that serviced the reading needs of Montana’s lumberjack and logging communities…

Library rail car built in 1926 to serve the literature names of logging camps in early 20th century Montana. Read more about the library car here.

Either way, it must have been a pretty unusual first home for Bacon and Dolly, and a pretty unusual life for two people new to a state that was not quite yet developed. 1920’s Montana wasn’t for the timid or the faint of heart.  Interesting but also tumultuous, it was stunning in topography, erratic in business opportunity, progressive in gender equality and rebellious when it came to law and decorum. Especially when it came to train life.

Northern Pacfic Railroad Advertising 1910-1920’s

When the railroad companies first started building tracks out west with the ultimate goal of connecting the East coast to the West coast, Montana was marketed to new settlers as a land of stunning beauty and abundant farming opportunities. Homesteaders came from the East coast with intentions of building farms, raising livestock and growing food for commerce. But when these newcomers arrived they experienced a climate far different then what they knew back home. The winters were longer, the temperatures were colder, the open prairies were vast and resources were scarce forcing everyone to be immediately self-reliant. By the early 1900’s, livestock brought in from the East (mostly cows) had arrived in such excess they depleted the natural prairie grasses and upset the delicate balance of the natural eco-system, basically reducing the landscape to bare patches. Add-in an almost decade-long drought that occurred in the 1920’s, and the typography of Montana came to look more like a dessert of death than a lush and verdant valley of promise that all the postcards had been promoting..

Butte, Montana postcard from the 1920’s

The rail companies wanted to keep tourism and homesteading moving through the state though, so they would pay local homesteaders $1000 to grow the most attractive crop they could manage from the poor soil and then took those displays back East to show people how wonderful the agriculture was in Montana.

Montana Homestead Poster

This unscrupulous marketing ploy worked, and new settlers came by the train-full to start a fresh life in green and growing Montana. Only when they got they got off the train, they could see the landscape was devasted and the dry soil virtually unmanageable.  Bacon, in his train depot office, would have been witness to all the excitement and disappointment that came through his station, especially when he worked in Gold Creek which was known for its gold mining potential.

Eventually, all this agriculture business got sorted out once the rains came and residents were properly educated on how and what to grow in this new environment. Montana began to thrive once again. Leaving Gold Creek, Dolly and Bacon moved on to settle into another rural rail town, Phillipsburg, where Bacon worked as a train conductor on a transportation line for livestock and mining equipment.

Now an abandoned track, these are recent photos of the train line running through Phillipsburg with views that Dolly and Bacon would have seen on a daily basis.  Photos courtesy of D & D Travel.

From their wedding forward, Bacon and Dolly lived in Montana and loved it. Dolly often wrote poems about the natural beauty of her surroundings. They both mastered baking – Bacon with his pies and Dolly with her bread. Stories have been passed down that tell of breakfast at their house – often fresh caught trout and a homemade loaf of bread, served possibly with a slice of pie. For over 55 years, these two watched the growth and evolution of their marriage,  their state, their family and their landscape all from the vantage point of the railroad tracks that ran through their lives and their hearts.

In some future posts, there will be more stories about Dolly and Bacon and their wild Montana life, but in the meantime, we have a holiday to celebrate and a pie to bake so it’s back to the rhubarb custard.

I recommend preparing the filling first. It can sit off to the side for a little bit while you make your pie crust.

Betty Crocker’s Rhubarb Custard Pie Filling

Makes enough filling for one 9″ inch pie

3 eggs

2 2/3 tablespoons milk

2 cups sugar  (I use cane sugar)

4 tablespoons flour

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

4 cups chopped fresh rhubarb (about 8-10 long stalks)

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash, dry and cut the rhubarb into small bite-size pieces.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly. Add the milk and then mix again before adding the sugar, flour and nutmeg.

Toss in the rhubarb and mix thoroughly. Then set aside while you make the pie crust.

Great-Grandpa Bacon’s Fool-Proof Pie Crust

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup butter or shortening ( I always use butter)

1/2 cup ice cold water

1/8 cup milk (reserved until the end)

In a bowl, mix the flour and salt. Roughly chop the butter and add to the flour mixture. With a fork press the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles course meal. If its easier, you can also do this quickly using your hands – jus don’t crumble the butter so much that it starts to melt from your body heat.

Once the butter is mixed in, add the ice-cold water (the colder the water the better). Mix until the dough clumps together and you can easily form a crumbly yet cohesive ball.

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth, board or marble slab and cut in half with a sharp knife. Place one half of the dough ball off to the side. Roll out the remaining half of the dough with a wooden roller that has been dusted with flour. If you don’t have a wooden rolling pin you can use a wine bottle, or a cylindrical jar or vase (if you use either make sure to dust it with flour). Roll the dough out as much as possible without tearing it. Makes sure it is big enough to accommodate your pie dish. Once the dough is the right size, gently fold the dough in half on the cloth.

Line the crease of the fold line up with the center of your pie dish and gently lay the crust (still folded) down so that it covers just one side of your dish, then unfold the other half to cover the other half of the dish.  There should be excess dough hanging off the sides of the dish. It should like this…

Pour the rhubarb mixture into the pie dish and set aside.

Next, in the same fashion as before, roll out the other half of the dough ball. In order to make a basket weave design for the top crust, you’ll need a sharp knife to cut strips of dough.

Place the first strip of dough vertically on the pie and the second strip of dough horizontally so that it forms a cross. Next weave the remaining strips in an over-under pattern, alternating each slice as you go.

Next, cut away the excess dough along the sides, leaving a collar of about 1 inch of extra dough all the way around the rim.  Pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together.

When finished dot the exposed holes with the remaining tablespoon of butter and brush the top crust lightly with milk.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the rhubarb custard is bubbling. Let cool on a wire rack before serving. This pie is very versatile in the presentation department –  serve it warm, cold or at room temperature.

Like pecan pie it is pretty sweet as it is, so you don’t need to add whipped cream or ice cream. Its ideal companion is a hot cup of coffee. And no one would look twice if you wanted to enjoy a slice for breakfast. Sometimes that’s the best time of day for a little decadence. If he was still alive, Bacon would be right there with you, enjoying a plate of breakfast trout.

If you get a chance to try this recipe, please let us know how you liked it. And if you have any questions on how to make your pie crust please comment below and we’ll get right back to you.

In the meantime, cheers to all the recipes that turn into traditions and cheers to Bacon and Dolly for always being a part of our most delicious holiday celebrations.

Whimsical Winter Baking: Russian Tea Cake Snowmen

Russian Tea Cakes… those dense little snowy bundles of sweet confectionary sugar, butter, flour, and nuts is a classic Christmas cookie that has been a staple in our holiday baking since I was a little kid. One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name… Pecan Balls.

The history behind these guys is muddy but a popular theory is that they originated in Europe as a tea time snack (hence their name Russian Tea Cakes) and migrated to Mexico with European nuns where they became a popular cookie served at weddings (Mexican Wedding Cakes!).  A friend who grew up in Canada knew them as Rolling in the Snow cookies (how very fun!) and at a church-sponsored flea market in the South, I once saw them advertised as Holy Rollers on the food and beverage table. That could have been someone’s clever name made up just for that day, so I’m not sure if this one has actual traction, but it does pay homage to the nun theory anyway.  And of course, for all the literal lovers out there, the Pecan Ball needs no explanation as to how that name came about since indeed these cookies are ball-shaped and can contain pecans.

Traditionally they look something like this…

and can contain any nuts you like – pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, macademia, etc. My mom always used walnuts and favored the recipe from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book printed in 1950…

so that became my family tradition as an adult too. Some other recipes include additional ingredients of cinnamon or loose tea, lavender or lemon zest but Betty Crocker’s version is the one we like best.

Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus additional following baking)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/4 cups sifted flour (Betty recommended Gold Medal flour back in the day)

1/4 tsp. sal

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Mix butter sugar and vanilla together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift flour and salt together and mix into butter. Stir in nuts and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from fridge and roll into 1″ inch balls* using your hands. Place 2.5 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set but not brown (between 10-12 minutes).**  While still warm roll in confectioner’s sugar. Cool and then roll in sugar once again.

* To make snowmen: You will need to form three balls per snowman ranging in size from big (base) medium (middle) small (head). Roll each ball in your hand to shape it into a typical snowball shape and then flatten the big and medium balls on the top and bottom with your hand so that that they will sit on top of each other without rolling off. The smallest ball (the head) should only be flattened on the bottom (so that your snowman will have a round head on top). The snowmen pictured here are three inches in height, so use your judgment when shaping as far as ball sizing. If you want to make bigger snowmen, baking times will need to be extended.

** If you are making snowmen –  Bake all the big bottom base snowballs together on one sheet and then the medium and small balls on another sheet since the smaller balls usually take 1-2 minutes less baking time then the big balls. Your snowball sizes will look something like this…

After you’ve baked and sugared all your cookies, now you are ready for the fun part of decorating. This is what I had on hand in the “props” department…

Orange rinds for the scarf and nose, black peppercorns for the eyes and rosemary branches for the arms. To make the scarf and nose just take a vegetable peeler and peel about 3 inches of rind in one long continues piece. Trim with a sharp paring knife to your desired scarf thickness and curl the rind around your fingers to shape it like a scarf (once the rind dries out it will hold the shape perfectly). Wedge the scarf into the section where the head meets the body.

Press the peppercorns into the head gently. They will stick on their own (this step might take a couple of attempts!).

Cut a thin long triangle out of your excess orange rind (to mimic the shape of a carrot)  and gently press into the head where the nose should be. The orange rind will stick to the cookie on its own but might take a couple of attempts too.

Cut rosemary branches to size and poke into each side of the middle ball.

And now your snowman has come to life! Just like the ones you make in your yard, each one will have his own little personality depending on how you style it. The sky is the limit when it comes to decorating your guy so feel free to get creative if you want to make a hat, a jacket or a corncob pipe. Additional mounds of powdered sugar help set the stage for a little wintertime scene, day or night…

Hope this project adds a little fun to your day! Cheers to a winter wonderland from the sweetest little snowmen in the Vintage Kitchen!