Food: Colonial Times

I have always had a passion for history. Not only does it provide points of intelligent conversation, but it also teaches us where we came from. It is a reminder that things were not always this easy. Being a strong homemaker requires us to understand and be grateful for today’s modern conveniences. In 1750 we were not simply able to walk into the local grocer and fill up a cart full of food that fills our heart’s desire. These lessons of the past can truly propel us forward into the future. We are going to talk about three major groups of people in America: Native Americans, African Americans, and colonists.

Colonists

Colonists ate differently based on where they lived. Settlers often brought food and some supplies with them from their homeland. Some cooking was even influenced by Native Americans. Settlers that lived “way out” often ate porridge that was cooked all night over embers. Sometimes that was drank with dark beer. Can you imagine….a heavy dark beer first thing in the morning? In the cities and towns people often ate cornmeal with molasses and also drank cider or beer. (A Cooking Legacy, Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan [Walker & Company:New York] 1975 (p. 14)

Meal Time

Typically, in colonial times, breakfast was served later if you were richer, early if you were poor. Did you know that there was no meal called lunch? Dinner was instead served early afternoon in the north, and later in the south. During the same time, often slaves and laborers ate stews. We will get to that more, later. Often this included pork, corn, and other vegetables readily available. Finally, supper was served later in the evening and consisted of leftovers from dinner.

By the late 1700’s dinner included two courses. The first course were meat puddings, meat pies, and the like. The second course is usually dessert. Dessert consisted of dried or fresh fruit, custard, tarts, pies, etc.

Tending to the Flame

You may be wondering where colonial housewives or help baked her cakes. In many colonial homes, there was a brick oven designated for such cooking of pastries and breads. However, tending to a fire and keeping it at the right temperature must have been quite a chore. It isn’t like today where we can set our ovens to 325 and forget it! If you read old recipes, they will call for a “slow” oven. This refers to an oven at a low temperature. Talk about a bunch of guess work!

“The home brick oven–whether adjacent to the hearth in the kitchen or a separate structure outside–was designed and used exclusively for bread, cake, and pastry. If the niceties of regulating several fires on the hearth at one time challenged the skill of the cook, even more difficult was the proper regulation of the oven. One built a fire directly in it for the purpose of heating the walls, which had to hold enough heat long enough to complete that particular baking load. Since the oven had no flue, the fire smothered if the door was closed, therefore, the door was left partly open to supply oxygen for the fire and to allow the smoke to escape. The open door also allowed the cook to watch the fire. For even heat she stirred it periodically and pushed it about to different spots on the oven floor. When the fuel had burned to ashy coals, she raked them out and then tested the heat with her hand. If the oven was too hot, she allowed it to cool to the proper temperature; if it was not hot enough, she had to repeat the heating procedure with another fire. Using an oven peel to protect her hands, she put in the bread, which had been kneaded earlier and set to rise so as to be ready to bake when the oven was ready, and closed the door, not to open it again until she judged the bread done. small loaves could be baked directly on the bricks without scorching the bottom crusts. Large loaves or a very hot oven floor dictated the use of bread pans, as did cakes and pies of all sorts.”A Cooking Legacy, Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan [Walker & Company:New York] 1975 (p. 14)

Europeans brought with them the baking practices of England. Within a few decades of founding Jamestown and other colonies, commercial bakeries began to spring up. Popular Breads included brown bread and what was dubbed at the time as Indian Bread. In the south, people really liked hot breads like corn bread, biscuits, and Johnny cakes. (Baking in America: Economic Development, William G. Panschar, Volume 1 [Northwestern University Press:Evanston IL] 1956 (p. 25-27) As you can tell, these southern breads shape the meals we eat today.

Storage

Obviously, back then, Americans did not have refrigeration. Beans were salted, pickled, and dried for preservation. Ice cream existed, but was consumed immediately! Butter was coated with salt for preservation. The salt was rinsed off before use. Meat was usually salted, dried, cured, or canned. “With refrigeration and [commercial] canning yet unknown, the colonial housewife depended upon other expedients to keep her food supplies edible. Meat, the most important element in the Virginia diet, posed special problems because it spoiled quickly in the warm climate. The practice of preserving it with salt was so universal that guests in private homes and public taverns found salted meat on the menu at nearly every meal. One of Rochambeau’s officers, for example, observed that Virginians ate a great deal of it because “the summer heat here restricts them to this dies, for fresh-killed meat must be consumed within twenty-four hours or else it will spoil.” Hogs, which furnished “the principal food” of the inhabitants, were never slaughtered in summer, and pork was seldom eaten fresh. “The people here have a special way of curing them that consists of salting and smoking them” he explained, “almost as we do in France; however, ours cannot touch theirs for flavor and quality.”
Colonial Virginia Cookery, Jane Carson, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation [Williamsburg VA] 1985 (p. 113)

Colonial Cookbooks

Often, the most referred to colonial cook book is American Cookery by Amelia Simmons. It is referred to as one of the first truly American cookbooks as they used ingredients found in America, like corn meal. If you are looking for some of the first American cookbooks, check these out.

  • 1615, New Booke of Cookerie, John Murrell
  • 1798, American Cookery, Amelia Simmons (Hartford, CT)
  • 1803, Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter (New York, NY)
  • 1807, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Rundell (Boston, MA)
  • 1808, New England Cookery, Lucy Emerson (Montpelier, VT)

African American Slaves

Slaves were often provided rations of food weekly, often on Saturdays. These foods included lard, corn meal, molasses, peas, some meat, and flour. Some slave owners permitted the slaves to have their own small gardens for personal usage. Usually morning meals were consumed early in the slaves’ cabins or shacks. Supper was mass created in a cookhouse to feed many slaves during a break in their day. This was usually done by an elderly slave who could no longer tolerate hard labor. Recalled a former enslaved man: “The peas, the beans, the turnips, the potatoes, all seasoned up with meats and sometimes a ham bone, was cooked in a big iron kettle and when meal time come they all gathered around the pot for a-plenty of helpings!” Dinners were prepared in individual cabins (https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/living/history2.html)

These foods were high in starch and fats. Believe it or not, the origins of Barbecue are in large part thanks to the African American community. There is a great article by The Guardian on the topic, here. Unfortunately, I could not find a large amount of written recipes from the time as many slaves did not know how to read or write.

Native Americans

Native Americans have clung tightly to their culture, as so often it has been pulled away from them. Back during colonial times, settlers tried to force upon them Christianity and the ways of European culture. To preserve their culture as best as they could, they often used their food. To this day, Native Americans can still be found preparing food in the same way as their ancestors, and sharing these recipes with their children and grandchildren. Read more here. As the Europeans settled here in America, their food traditions were quite changed. 90% of their diet was agriculturally based (corn, nuts, seeds, etc). Europeans brought with them pigs, goats, cattle, sheep, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, melons, apples, grapes, and wheat. (Source). This changed the way they ate.

Hunting and Gathering

Native Americans were a culture of hunters and gatherers. The hunting was usually the job of the male and the gathering was the job of the female. According to Science Direct, they used bow and arrow for about 1,000 years before the settlers arrived in America. So, during the 1700’s, this was their tool of choice, although some did still hunt with spears.

Fishing was very important to the Native American culture-especially to those who lived near a good water supply. Berries and fruits were eaten raw, but most foods were actually cooked! They baked, fried, deep fried, boiled, and roasted food over an open fire. The Seminole tribe made a corn porridge called Sofkee. Corn bread was also a very common dish among many tribes. Some tribes made the product thin like a tortilla while others made more of a bread. When the settlers removed the Native Americans from their land, their foods changed as they were forced onto lands that they unfamiliar with.

Stay Tuned!!!!!

I hope you enjoyed this historical look back into how we got food in the 1700s. Stay tuned and we will move through the 1800s. If you enjoy this type of post check out the Townsends to include their Youtube channel. They enjoy sharing the “flavors and aromas of the 18th century!” I would love to see your comments on what you would enjoy or not enjoy about gathering food and cooking during colonial times in the comment section below!

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