Some popular colonial foods have mercifully disappeared from American cuisine, namely stewed swan, eel pie, roasted beaver tail, (would I make that up?) calf’s foot jelly, oyster ice cream, and whale bile (we won’t even go there). And as America grew its population, different immigrants brought their own foods, adding to the developing cuisines. Adventurous cooks created foods which were uniquely their own as time marched on. So what did the colonists eat? Let’s check it out.
Climate played a major role in early cuisine. Puritans in Massachusetts faced short growing seasons and braced themselves for long winters. Milder climates, like those in the Carolinas, afforded longer growing seasons, with access to fresh vegetables and fruits much of the year. Before china and pewter dishes arrived, basic utensils consisted of a wooden plate called a trencher or a simple wooden bowl. (The less dishwashing the better for overworked homemakers.) Each person had his own knife and a two-pronged fork, sometimes carved from wood. Soups were usually drunk right out of a mug or bowl. Porridge, often called hasty pudding, was made from cornmeal. Along with bread and beer, (you read that correctly) those were basics for morning meals. Mid-day dinner might be meat, vegetables, pie, both sweet and savory, and again beer or ale, probably homemade. Evening supper was leftovers. Wild game and venison were common, and corn played a large part in early cuisine, used for porridge, mush and bread, along with squashes, beans, berries and whatever could be gathered out in the woods.
As in Europe, bread was a staple of the American diet. For those who lived in communities and towns, there often was a local baker where bread and cakes could be purchased. Others who lived on farms or in the wilderness did their own baking, which was a long, laborious and heated chore, usually once a week.
Since early colonists settled along the ocean and rivers, fish was a major part of their diet. Cod and haddock could be pickled or dried for the winter months, and mussels, clams and oysters were plentiful in the summers. (Although lobsters were abundant in Massachusetts, early settlers considered them “cockroaches” and rarely ate them.) River fish like trout, salmon and bass were available as well. Wheat did not grow well in the northeast and usually had to be purchased, but rye and corn were plentiful. Beef, pork and lamb (mutton) arrived with every ship to help start local farms and a larger choice of meat. Although their menu was simple, most cooks had herbs and spices to season their foods, and sweets were frequently enjoyed along with seasonal fruits.
Wild animals and birds were often hunted for food, especially by the poor and those out on the frontier; meats and some vegetables were salted, smoked, or pickled to provide food throughout the winter; beans and vegetables were dried; root cellars and spring houses kept foods cool. In the mid-1700s, the Scottish and Irish immigrants brought dairy cattle to the colonies, which helped make butter, milk, cream and cheese a daily food.
For the wealthier classes, imported foods arrived on ships and could be purchased and enjoyed, such as cheeses, sausages, wheat flour, barley, tea, coffee, chocolate, dried fruits and nuts, molasses and various spices and alcoholic drinks. If you were lucky enough to have access to milk and cream, these were popular bases for desserts and sauces. Beverages such as coffee, tea, and chocolate were popular depending on one’s budget, along with lots of beer. For those less fortunate, hard cider and beer had to suffice. As local commerce increased, some alcoholic beverages became available, and of course the neighborhood taverns served up whiskey, rum and ale. Colonists consumed a substantial amount of alcohol, especially applejack, a fermented apple cider which packed a punch. Some wines were available, usually homemade, and the wealthier enjoyed sherry and madeira.
Originally fruits and vegetables were usually cooked and a major part of soups and stews. The “one pot” dinner was common, as everything was tossed into a large pot and simmered over the fire for hours, ready for hungry workers and children. Days were long and laborious, and unless you had a cook, that large pot was ever-present, ready for the next meal. Pies and cobblers were the chosen desserts along with “clabber,” which was made with leftover soured milk and topped with sweet spices like cinnamon or nutmeg.
In most regions, apples, pears, plums, peaches and berries were abundant and eaten in season, then dried for the winter, or made into jams. Herb gardens were plentiful, and savory sauces often accompanied meats and fish. Molded gelatins and jellies were high on the hit parade during the 18th century. Calf’s foot jelly, in particular, was well known, with rich and poor alike. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a gelatin that emerges while boiling the hoof of a calf. It could be used to make an aspic (no Jello back then), a thickening agent, or simply served alongside meat.
Early presidents like foodie Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison famously loved ice cream, and their chefs were instructed to experiment with different flavors. It seems that Dolley Madison’s favorite was flavored with oysters. She would chop up the “small, sweet” ones and add them to the cream mixture. Eel was popular and plentiful in New England, and eel pie was a delicacy. When pepper arrived in the colonies, it was a highly prized spice, and reportedly Martha Washington liked to put pepper into things we might not choose today, especially sweet, dessert-like concoctions. (Author’s note: I don’t know about anyone else, but there’s not enough pepper in the world to disguise eel.)
Stewed swan and turtle soup were delicacies for the upper classes, especially prized in Virginia and Maryland, where there were plenty of turtles, and apparently plenty of swans. Prepared with wine and butter, turtle soup was a rich, decadent dish. Pigeons were also a delicacy when prepared properly, roasted and seasoned; for the poorer folks, pigeon was flung into a pasty shell and stretched with gravy and potatoes, clearly the forerunner of chicken pot pies. Crab and oysters might follow a first course soup. For all classes, pork was plentiful, and its fat was useful for frying as well as soap and candle making. Cured bacon and hams provided meat throughout the winter, and also made good traveling food. (Stewed swan and eel pie didn’t fare too well on wagon trains.)
Posset (not to be confused with possum) was a rich custard treat in the early 1700s. What made it more desirable was the addition of some type of alcohol, so it could be readily drunk (and so could the imbiber). Ah, those clever colonists–always looking for ways to sneak in some alcohol.
Scrapple, primarily eaten in German communities, utilized leftover organ meats and pieces of pork, chopped and mixed with cornmeal, then fried, kind of like modern day Spam. In many southern states, a similar version called liver pudding, or livermush, is still sold in supermarkets.
One guest who attended the dinner party of a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1786 recorded the following account in her diary: the first course was turtle soup, followed by roasted turkey, ducks, beef and veal, with assorted jellies, pickled vegetables, and several kinds of puddings and pies, followed by the nut and fruit finish, with French wines, after-dinner brandy and cognac. Although a bountiful spread by anyone’s standards (except foodie president Thomas Jefferson), the historian remarked that the menu was quite simple fare. Because it was customary to sample each dish, it resembles our modern day buffet, but no salad bar.
Early cookbooks recorded recipes and cooking techniques, and wealthier colonials had personal chefs. As cities grew, small restaurants opened, introducing their native foods, and commercial businesses sprang up, providing canned and packaged products. But for the early colonists, food was a major part of everyday life, and colonial foodies were always searching for new horizons.