Constitution Week

Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part VII

September 23, 2013


Constitution Week 3Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part VII

Salting was also used extensively without intentional drying.  In fact, salt pork, beef or fish (plus some cheese), was often the only animal protein available during the winter.

Salt was thus essential to the early settler.  Although some was imported from Portugal and the West Indies, it was too expensive for general use.  In some parts of the frontier, salt cost four times as much as beef, ad not until 1800 did it drop even to $2.50 per bushel.  More modest households depended on “Bay Salt” produced along the coasts by the simple expedient of evaporating salt water from the ocean.  Inland, however, it was another problem.  There were occasional salt springs, but “licks” were more common sources, both for man and beast.  Daniel Boone, in fact, owed much of his fame to his ability to find such salt licks on the frontier. 


Except for large feasts, butchering was typically done in the fall, as soon as it was cold enough to chill the carcass rapidly.  If a pig was butchered, a certain amount was reserved fresh, for immediate use, and some was made into sausage.  Unless it was cold enough to be preserved in ice or frozen, the balance, especially the hams and side meat, was treated with salt containing saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and stored until it had lost considerable water.  It was then exposed to hickory or fruitwood smoke for several days, and then hung in a ventilated shed or barn for months, as it gradually lost moisture.  After some six to eighteen months, it had become what we know as a “country ham,” and contained from 3 to 7 percent salt. 


When an animal was butchered in the summer or in milder weather, it was a different matter.  Smoking, drying and “corning” (pickling) was very important, but if meat was to be used fresh, other precautions needed to be taken.  If a householder had access to ice, the “roasting meat” could be kept safely for several days.  If she wanted to keep it for a week or so, its surface was dried carefully with a towel and it was hung in the basement.  First, however, it was sprinkled with salt and pepper, which discouraged flies, and also helped cover with inevitable taint. 


For still longer storage, some cookbooks recommended that the roast be wrapped in cloth, laid in the coal bin, and covered with a shovelful of coal!  The purpose of this treatment, other than to discourage flies, is unclear. 


All parts of an animal were important to the early American housewife, including many the consumer tends to spurn now.  Heads were used routinely in cooking, as were tongues, palates, and stomachs.  Intestines, of course, were used for sausage casing and the fat was rendered for lard.  Sausage was made from otherwise unappetizing but edible parts.  Feet were the source of jelly, to be used later for thickening puddings such as blanc mange, and for soup.


In fact, frontier wives made an early version of “bouillon cubes” from such jelly.  They would boil calves’ feet and other bones in water to extract the jelly, cool the solution, remove the fat and sediment, and then boil again to concentrate the solution.  When sufficiently condensed, this would be cooled in a shallow pan, where it would solidify to be cut into strips.  Dubbed “portable soup,” these strips could be carried on long trips, and dissolved in hot water to yield a tasty broth. 


Unfortunately, although the settlers and woodsmen didn’t know it, the protein in this material was almost worthless nutritionally, except for its small caloric value. 


Fruits and vegetables were the most difficult foodstuffs to provide off-season in anything approaching their natural state.  Some, of course, were stored in the root cellar.  A few were dried, like apples, especially in New England, but products like raisins and prune (from grapes and plums) required more sun and heat than were available in the north.  Brining was a relatively simple way to preserve a variety of vegetables for moderate periods without drastically changing their flavor.  Snap beans, carrots, cauliflower, celery, onions and sweet peppers were submerged in a mild salt-vinegar brine in a crock, where they could be kept several months. 


More drastic pickling treatment was also used for cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, and green tomatoes, to say nothing of shredded cabbage – sauerkraut.  Beef was also pickled (or corned), as were certain fish such as herring. 


Pickling had two primary nutritional effects on the material treated: it substantially increased the salt content of the foods involved, and drastically reduced their content of vitamins.  Washed and sorted vegetables were laid in a crock in layers, and then covered with layers of salt.  Sometimes grape leaves were also used in the intervening layers: their natural acids helped firm up the pickles, or alum was used for its greater dependability if it was available. 


After the crock was full, a vinegar brine was poured over the whole, to cover the produce, and the whole thing weighted down with a plate and a stone. 


One continuing problem was determining the strength of the vinegar.  Most vinegar was homemade from blemished or insect-ridden apples and the concentration varied widely.  Consequently, some batches of pickles spoiled because the acetic acid content of the vinegar was too low, while others were almost inedible because it was too high.  The crock had to be tended daily during the first few weeks after “laying the pickles down,” to skim off the foam which would arise during the fermenting process.  The brine was normally changed at least twice during the process also, before the pickles reached a stable condition and could be used or stored for later in the winter. 


Sauerkraut, of course, is essentially fermented, pickled cabbage.  It was commonly served in the northern part of the country as a vegetable during the winter months.  The pickling process reduced its vitamin A and C content to about one-third of that present in freshly shredded cabbage.  The cabbage stored in the root cellar also lost its vitamins, but not to the same degree.


Cucumber pickles lost a similar amount of these vitamins, leading to a very real risk of deficiency, diseases, especially scurvy.  Fortunately, potatoes helped provide a substantial portion of vitamin C, and they stored well over the winter.  Fortunately also, such crops as sweet potatoes and winter squash retained their carotene concentration during cool storage. 


Sugar played an important part in food preservation in early America also, although it was a scarce commodity in colonial days.  In the Northern colonies, honey and, to a lesser extent, maple syrup and sugar, were the “sweetnin” in the earliest days; refined sugar was imported from England and consequently expensive.  Sugar cane, however, rapidly became a cash crop in the South, and plantation owners learned to process it into brown sugar and molasses.  Plantation sugar was a highly variable product, and early American Cookbooks were full of warnings about clarifying the sugar before using it for the finest jellies and preserves.  For the more elegant dishes, refined white sugar was specified.  It was imported in cones weighting about ten pounds, and pieces were cut off with sugar shears as needed.  The cones were wrapped in blue-dyed paper, and the innovative housewife often soaked these papers in water to extract the Indigo dye.  The extract could be used to tint her homespun and other textile fibers. 


There were several other related sweeteners as well.  The best plantation sugar was the light brown product of the first boiling and crystallization.  The wet crystals were put on trays to dry, in such a way that any “run off” could be trapped and bottled as “treacle.”  This was usually the cheapest sweetener available to early Americans. 


Water was added to the leftover syrup, the product was boiled again and a second batch of brown sugar was crystallized.  This process was repeated several times, and the syrup left behind after the last boiling (usually the fourth or fifth) was blackstrap molasses.  The sugar content was low, and the product contained significant amounts of minerals and impurities. 


Sugar was used to preserve a variety of fruits for winter use.  Fruit preserves, jam and jellies were common, of course, especially where berries were plentiful.  The fruits were boiled with sugar in much the same procedure as it used today, and the bottles were sealed with beeswax or a mixture of candle wax and rosin.  Or a piece of paper would be pasted to the top of the jar with egg white, and the whole piece then painted with egg white, using a feather for a brush.  It was considered a good thing if a “leathery” mold formed on the surface, because it kept the air out.  The mold was simply removed carefully prior to use. 


Sugar was also used as a preservative in some meat preparations.  Dried meat was pounded with fat, sugar and acid berries, such as blueberries, into a mush to make pemmican, which was then stuffed into a sausage casing.  The sugar “tied up” the moisture so that bacteria couldn’t grow.  The product kept for a month or more on frontier voyages.  The principle is similar to that used in producing semi-moist pet foods today. 


Corn syrup was unknown in early America, as were sugar beets, but other products were used as sweeteners.  Sorghum was grown extensively for this purpose, especially in areas less tropical than Louisiana.  Sorghum couldn’t be crystallized into a sugar, but the molasses served eminently well as a base for many dishes, and even as a source for alcoholic beverages. 


It is difficult to determine how the diet of early Americans affected their general health.  Obviously, in the warmer parts of the country, fresh fruits and vegetables provided plenty of vitamins and minerals even though the settlers didn’t know it.  Plentiful game provided high quality protein, and the new corn was nutritionally beneficial. 


However, even in the southern colonies, slaves and working people subsisted for long periods on corn bread, molasses and salt pork, a diet leading frequently to pellagra.  On good plantations, the slaves might also get a ration of sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, collard greens, salt fish in winter, and sometimes fresh beef.  All excellent sources of needed vitamins, minerals and protein. 


In the North, meals must have been very boring during much of the year.  Foods that would keep were emphasized, with corn and cured or salt pork providing the backbone of the diet.  Corn was served a hundred ways, from grits and hoe cake (so called because it was first cooked on a hoe held in a fire) for breakfast, to fresh corn, corn soup and cornbread, and desserts like Indian Pudding. 


Vitamins would have been in short supply during the winter and spring.  Almost all the preservation techniques (pickling and salting especially) drastically reduced the vitamin C and A contents of cucumbers, cabbage and meats.  Carotene in fruits, such as were available, stood up pretty well to drying, and was available in stored vegetables such as sweet potatoes, winter squash and carrots.  Scurvy was common, especially in the winter and on the frontier. 


As America’s frontier moved west and the population increased, cities grew and flourished.  At the time of the Revolution, the largest city was Philadelphia, at 40,000.  In 1790, at the first census, the population of the entire country was less than 4 million, only 3 percent of whom lived in cities.  As of today, (September 23, 2013), the US population is over 316 million. 


Along with this change came gradual changes in the food supply.  Where once each family fed itself, many now came to depend on others.  Fast transportation developed, and new processes, such as canning, refrigeration and later freezing and controlled-atmosphere storage, came into growing use.  Food could be produced where it grew best and shipped to the cities for consumption.  Specialization aimed at lower cost and higher quality increased, and longer shelf life became more important. 

Also, as the distance between food production and its consumption grew, new regulatory activities aimed at ensuring the wholesomeness and safety of the newly separated food supply also grew.  This growth is a story in itself, but the process continues today (although there has been a movement to eat more local).  America’s consumer knows that he or she can buy food in almost any form and at almost any level of convenience he or she chooses.  In food, America’s bountiful heritage, the choice is the consumer’s whether it is from a farmers’ market or a supermarket. 




Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part VI

September 22, 2013

Constitution Week 2

Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part VI

Drying was one of the major processes by which the colonists preserved the bulk of their winter’s stores.  Fruits, especially apples, pears, peaches and apricots, some vegetables, and meat, particularly fish, were dried in large quantities for later use. Drying in the cloudy North was a tricky business, and was often combined with salting, especially for meat and fish.  Even with salting, however, a rack of split, headless fish would have to be unloaded and stacked for overnight indoor storage to prevent the day’s drying from being “undone” by the evening damp.  A string of cloudy, humid days was a threat to the whole process too, raising the possibility of loss by fermentation before drying had proceeded far enough to inhibit bacterial growth. 

Drying had other problems too.  Good air circulation on all sides was a must, and nets of hair were used to support the fruit or fish.  The food being processed had to be turned frequently, several times a day during the early stages. 

It also had to be protected from insects, bird droppings and blowing dirt, which was no mean task.  Many early cookbooks carry explicit instructions to the housewife to examine her dried foodstuffs carefully, and to remove any portions, which were too heavily infested with insect eggs.  A thorough cooking generally rendered the food safe, if not as esthetic as modern cooks might ask. 

Since drying was such a time-consuming task, housewives often got together to do at least some of the work in company.  Apple paring and coring parties were not unusual. After the apples were sliced, they were laid on screens or strung on strings to dry, after which they could be hung in the attic for use as needed.  A bushel of apples yielded about 7 pounds of dried slices, which were especially welcome when rehydrated and made into “Schnitz Pie” or apple cobbler during the winter months. 

If the housewife was especially concerned about appearance, she would sulfur her apples and other fruit as it dried.  The trays of fruit slices would be stacked so as to allow air circulation, and the stack covered with a barrel or tight box, which was propped up off the floor about a half-inch.  An ounce of “flowers of sulfur” was then twisted into a paper, set afire and stuck under the barrel for an hour’s exposure.  The sulfur dioxide fumes acted both as a bleach and a preservation for the fruit. 

Dried foods naturally lost a variety of nutrients during the process.  The amount of nutrient loss varied with the skill of the housewife-processor, and with the weather and the sophistication of the equipment available to her.  Fruits took longer to dry in the natural environment and hence lost some of their nutritive properties via spoilage and fermentation before the water concentration dropped to an appropriately low level.  Conversely, if material were inserted in the brick oven after the day’s bread was baked, the temperature was sometimes excessive, and destructive to vitamins and delicate sugars. 

Many housewives, however, learned the art very well, and produced dried fruits which would keep almost indefinitely, and which could be reconstituted months later to be used for stewed fruits, pies, and other dishes. 

On interesting processed food invented by early Americans was hominy.  As eaten, hominy was a winter substitute vegetable for sweet corn – although its vitamin C was completely destroyed, its vitamin A drastically reduced, and its protein content diminished.  Still, it was available – provided the cook was willing to go through the long series of steps required in its preparation.  First, a quart, say, of dry shelled field corn was boiled in a gallon of water containing an ounce of lye for about 30 minutes.  This caustic solution was then drained off, the corn rinsed several times in fresh water, and then it was rubbed (under water) between the palms to remove the husks and black tips, which floated to the surface.  The cleaned kernels were then covered with about an inch of fresh water and boiled for 5 minutes, drained, and covered again and boiled-flour times-and then boiled finally for some 45 minutes or until soft.  It’s a small wonder the vitamins were lost!

To Be Continued…



Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part V

September 21, 2013


Constitution Week

Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part V

In her food preparation and preservation, the early American housewife was tied tightly to the calendar and the clock – much more tightly than today’s homemaker is.  Local availability of foodstuffs and the limitations of existing food preservation techniques meant that nature largely called the shots on timing.  Fruits and vegetables had to be picked at the right moment and processed quickly.  Animals had to be slaughtered at their peak to keep best, and the peak varied from animal to animal.  Even cheese and butter had a better likelihood of successful preservation depending on the season of the year in which they were processed. 

Weather conditions played a major role: herbs had to be picked on a dry day to retain color and flavor; slaughter had to be done in cold weather to allow the carcass to cool rapidly; milk winters produced little ice for the following summer.

Also, once begun, preservation techniques sometimes had to be carried uninterruptedly through a long and tedious series of steps.  There was no turning back – or time for vacations.  Hams being cured had to be turned regularly, fish being dried had to be restacked four times a day, pickles had to have their brine skimmed and changed – or the product would be lost. 

The labor involved in such food preservation was frequently heavy, but the routine of the rest of the house went on as usual.  Organizational ability and endurance were essential, and woe betide the housewife who didn’t “keep up appearances” with her neighbors. 

Just as the make-up of the early American’s diet varied with his geographic location, so did his needs – and abilities – in food preservation. 

For example, the southern areas had access to a more varied food supply over the course of the year and consequently had less need to provide stores for the hard winter.  At the same time, it was more difficult and expensive to get ice for short-term protection against the warmer climate. Ice was actually shipped from Massachusetts to the Southern states and to Cuba and Jamaica in the early 19th century, but it was obviously only available to the wealthier residents.  The ice-box itself didn’t become popular until the mid 1800’s.

The shorter growing season in the North reduced the variety of produce available, but it also made cold storage in root cellars practical in small towns and rural areas.  Above-ground ice houses and ice-saws, invented in the mid-nineteenth century, drastically reduced the cost of storing ice into the summer, and simplified storage of dairy products, fish and meat. 

In many respects, the northern colonies had the greatest difficulty in providing a nutritious, varied diet throughout the year.  Although fruits, berries, and summer vegetables were plentiful from the midsummer to early fall, proving vitamin-rich foodstuffs, during the winter and spring took special care. Many food items, of course, could be stored in relatively simple root cellars – where winter temperatures hovered between 30 and 40 degrees.  In especially cold weather, a large tub of water was placed on the floor.  This water gave off heat as it froze, which kept the vegetables safe.  Turnips, beets and squash were kept in the driest areas.  Carrots would keep anywhere.  Cabbages and celery were buried in sand, cauliflower was set in holes and covered with straw, while cranberries were floated in water in a tub.  Other crops were arranged loosely on slatted shelves for free air circulation, sometimes lying on straw. 

Some vegetables, such as summer squash and potatoes, kept better at somewhat higher temperatures, and these were usually stored in the dark basement of the home.  Temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees were ideal. 

Eggs could also be stored in the root cellar, or in the basement of the house.  Two methods were common.  In one, the eggs (which the housewife was instructed to collect “in fine weather”) were dipped in boiling water for 20 seconds, then coated all over with butter or “sweet oil” (glycerin) and packed in sawdust.  They would keep this way for some two to three weeks.  Other housewives kept their eggs in crocks, submerged in “water glass” (sodium silicate).  In this technique, it was important not to wash the eggs first, since their shells possess a natural coating which prevented the water glass from penetrating through the shell and ruining the egg.  Even stored at room temperature, such eggs would keep for several months, while the hens sulked through the dark winter days. 

If a family didn’t have room for a root cellar, it could accomplish somewhat the same effect with a pit, with the vegetables in layers separated by straw, and the whole covered with earth.  Obviously, retrieving vegetables thus buried was a messy chore, and needed careful planning. 

Under either type of storage, frequent examination was necessary, in order to detect spoilage and eliminate those items of fruit or vegetables which had gone rotten.  The proverb about “one rotten apple spoiling the barrel” was not taken lightly!  In fact, many housewives wouldn’t put apples in barrels, but spread them out, in order to “pick them over” more easily as the winter progressed.  Spoiling apples were cut up, and the good parts made into applesauce as the winter progressed.  Early cookbooks instructed the housewife to add a teaspoon of tartaric acid to the apples when making sauce late in the winter, as the apples lost their flavor.  New Englanders even had a name for the period after the vegetables had spoiled or been used up, but before the dandelion greens appeared.  They called it “the six weeks want.”

In the South, storage of this sort was less necessary, and the typical New England vegetables such as Hubbard squash and turnips were rarely seen on Southern menus. 

To Be Continued…

Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part IV

September 20, 2013

Revolutionary War 2Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part IV

The longer winters in New England produced a diet somewhat different from that in Virginia.  Not as many varieties of fruits and vegetables grew as in the South, and emphasis was put on those which would store well or which could be converted to something stable through drying, salting, or pickling.  The staple grain in the early days was rye, in addition to the new grain, Indian corn.  A common bread was called “Rye’ n Injun,” and was baked from a yeast dough of rye, cornmeal, and molasses.  Wheat did not grow well in the harsh climate, and the small amount of wheat flour available was used “for best,” as was the refined sugar.

Sweet potatoes and other root vegetables and cabbages were major items on the menu.  All cooking was done in cavernous fireplaces, either in kettles or on spits.  The cooking range, although invented by Count Rumford in the late 1700’s, didn’t become popular until the Civil War era.  The New England boiled dinner of corned beef, potatoes, cabbage and whatever else was available, was a natural outgrowth of fireplace cooking.  Beans baked in a pot set in the coals also fit the New England style of cooking and the available found supply. 

Although mutton had been the main meat supply in England, pigs were more attractive than sheep in the new land.  For one thing, sheep usually had only one lamb at a time, while a litter of pigs a dozen strong was not uncommon.  Also, pigs could forage for themselves at an earlier age than sheep, and thrived on the vegetation in forest and field. 

Cattle were kept largely for milk and cheese, and although they were scarce at first, they reproduced prolifically in the Northeast.  In fact, the Reverend John Cotton once remarked “milk and ministers were the only things cheap in New England.” 

In other parts of the country, settlers found more new foods and used them in new ways.  In Louisiana, for example, French settlers adapted their old world recipes to accommodate such new foods as tomatoes, okra, crayfish, red snapper, catfish and, of course, corn.  The climate was amenable to growing fruits and vegetables year ‘round, making a varied diet easy to get – even if it didn’t taste like home. 

In the Charleston and Savannah areas, rice cultivation began very early, in 1694, and soon became a major business.  Much of the rice was exported.  Oranges were also grown in the Charleston area. 

In the Southwest, the Spanish had developed a cuisine all their own, as they moved north from Mexico and Latin America.  New varieties of beans, plus the ever-present corn, were cooked with traditional Spanish spices plus something unknown in Spain – hot peppers.  With the continual warm weather were also possible, at least where water was available, and there was little emphasis on preservation.  In the more arid areas, however, variety was as limited as during winter in New England.  Beans, corn and squash were the order of the day. 

As time went on, Americans moved west, and the frontiersmen had an entirely new set of problems to meet.  Trappers and explorers traveled light, and that usually meant living primarily off the land. Many subsisted almost exclusively on meat, killing bear, venison and small game as they went.  One of Pierre LeSeur’s men wrote in his journal of consuming about 10 pounds of buffalo meat each day, plus four bowls of broth.  While buffalo meat apparently took some getting used to, this particular explorer wrote that “it made us quite fat, and none was sick.”

One “recipe” called for bear steak fried in tallow and covered with whisky – meat and drink in one meal!  Pemmican, made from dried meat, fat and berries ground together, was travelling food.  Beef and buffalo cut into strips and dried in the sun was called “jerky,” and kept well, even though it was tough chewing!

Bread was almost unknown, but occasionally a hardtack or ship biscuit could be obtained at a trading post. 

The frontiersmen, including migrating settlers, also found the edible wild plants to be helpful sources of nutrients missing from the dried and salted staples.  These included such things as dandelions, polk sprouts, sassafras, grapes and various nuts and berries.  When they found a place to stay for a season, corn could be planted by simply making a hole with a pointed stick or ax, dropping several kernels into the rich soil – and a crop would grow; plowing simply wasn’t necessary. 

To Be Continued…


Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part III

September 19, 2013

MayflowerConstitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part III

The abundance of meat in America was a major change in the diet of the early settlers.  Rabbits and squirrels were available year-round nearly everywhere, plus deer and other large game in many regions.  As settlers moved west, buffalo gained importance in the diet.  Fish, shellfish and wild fowl became common food, and they were all essentially “free.”  The existence of these various forms of game was a literal life saver in times of uncertain crops and unbroken land.  The game gradually diminished, of course, as the population expanded and settlers pushed west, but it provided a large share of the diet in early and frontier days. 

Ham, of course, appeared on almost every settler’s table, rich or poor.  It might be the only meat served at a meal or it might appear in company with more exotic roasts and fowl, but it was always there – breakfast, dinner and supper. 

Corn was also a staple of the colonists, either fresh in summer, or as hominy or corn meal all year.  Corn was also put to another use by an early Virginian, Captain George Thorpe, who may have been the first food technologist in America as he invented Bourbon whiskey shortly before he was massacred by the Indians in 1622.

Meal patterns for working people in rural early America were very different from those common today.  Breakfast was usually early and light which consisted of bread, hominy grits, and sometimes fruit in season.  Coffee, which was a new beverage at the time, was popular that is if it was available.  A drink made from caramelized grain was sometimes substituted.  Chicory was popular in the South, either alone or used to stretch the coffee.  Tea was often made from local leaves such as sage, raspberry or dittany.  Alcohol in some form was often served. 

Breakfast in more elegant homes or large plantations might be later in the morning, and include thinly sliced roast and ham. 

Dinner was served somewhere between midday and midafternoon, depending on the family’s circumstances, and was the big meal of the day.  There was almost always ham, as well as greens (called sallat), cabbage and other vegetables.  In the proper season, special dainties would appear – fresh fruits and berries, or fresh meat at appropriate butchering times. 

Desserts could be simple such as a scooped out pumpkin, baked until done and then filled with milk, to be eaten right out of the shell.  Or dessert could be more complex such as ice cream or other fruit flavored frozen pudding or a blanc mange.  Blanc mange was prepared from milk and loaf sugar, flavored with a tablespoon or two of rosewater, thickened with a solution of isinglass (derived from fish bladder, soaked overnight in boiling water).  This mixture was boiled for 15 to 20 minutes, then poured into molds to set. 

If isinglass was not available (most was imported from England), homemade calves foot jelly could be substituted, but eh dessert was not as fine. 

Various alcoholic beverages, including wines, applejack, “perry” (hard cider made from pears), or beer were commonly consumed. 

In winter, peaches and other fruit disappeared from the dinner table, to be replaced by dishes made from stored apples and dried fruit of various sorts.  Soups or broths also took their place.  Milk grew scarce as cows “dried up” in the short days.  Vegetables gradually decreased in variety as stored crops wilted. 

Apples quickly became a staple in early America.  Orchards were easy to start, required a minimum of care, and apples stored well.  Housewives devised a multitude of “receipts,” including sauces and butters for off-season, as well as many using dried apples. 

Supper was late and a light bread and butter, some of the left-over roast from dinner, fruit (fresh if in season, pickled and spiced otherwise), and coffee or tea.  

To Be Continued…


Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part II

September 18, 2013


Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers Part II

The standard grains included wheat, barley, oats and rye.  Finely ground wheat flour, “boulted” or sieved through a fine cloth, was used to make white bread for the rich early in the fifteenth century.  Most of the gentry ate what we would call cracked or whole wheat bread.  The poor ate bread of coarse-ground wheat flour mixed with oats, ground peas or lentils. 

During the ocean crossing to the New World, immigrants subsisted on an even more monotonous diet for weeks.  The Mayflower provisions were typical – brown biscuits and hard white crackers, oatmeal, and black-eyed peas, plus bacon, dried salted codfish and smoked herring for animal protein.  The only vegetables on the trip were parsnips, turnips, onions and cabbages.  Beer was the beverage. 

As pilgrims set foot on their new homeland, they hardly knew what to expect.  Each brought a stock of basic foods to get them through the first year, as well as a variety of basic utensils and kitchen tools.  Also included were the essential accompaniments for whatever they found or could raise when they arrived – a bushel of coarse salt, 2 gallons of vinegar, a gallon of “oyle” and a gallon of aquavite. 

Nothing they had been told, however, prepared them for the staggering variety of totally unfamiliar plants that were being used as food by the Indians – corn, sweet potatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, sunflower seeds and cranberries were examples.  In addition to the strange food, there were strange ways of cooking.  In Europe, meat was boiled; the Indians, lacking iron pots, roasted theirs on a spit over a fire.  The Indians also had a long, slow cooking process that yielded what we now call Boston baked beans, and they used a fire-heated, rock-lined pit for what we would now call a clam-bake.  Where the pilgrims were accustomed to raised wheat bread, the Indians introduced them to corn based spoon bread.  Corn also provided hominy, used as a vegetable, and later, of course, as grits.  For sweetening, the Indians used maple syrup and honey, as sugar was unknown. 

Although many of the food the Pilgrims and other colonists found were totally strange, others had travelled the route before them.  The Spanish had brought pigs, which thrived especially in areas where peanuts grew.  Peaches and oranges were also native which spread throughout climatically suitable areas in a short time. 

Even the white potato was an early migrant to the New World, following a zig-zag route, from its original home in Peru to Spain in 1520, from Spain to Florida forty years later, from Florida to England in 1565, always being treated as a culinary curiosity.  By the 1600’s they had become a popular food staple in Ireland, and were carried by Colonists both to New England and Virginia, where they quickly established themselves.  There they served as a valuable source of vitamin C, protein and trace minerals, in addition to the starch. 

Potatoes, incidentally were significant in another, later migration to America: the climate in Ireland proved so amenable to their culture, and their nutrient content was so high, that many poor Irish farmers grew only potatoes on their small farms.  In fact, as fathers subdivided farms for their sons, many found themselves supporting whole families on the potatoes grown on less than an acre of ground, while the family itself lived in a roofed-over ditch.  When blight struck in 1845, the sole food source of millions of people literally withered away before their eyes.  A half-million of the 8 1/2 million population died of starvation or disease, and 1 1/2 million emigrated to England or America – following the “Irish potatoe.”

Spices were in short supply in America’s earliest days.  The English pretty well monopolized the trade with the New World.  Within a few years, however, settlers had planted the seeds they had brought or imported, and most had adapted to the climate and were flourishing in orderly rows and patterns in kitchen gardens all along the Atlantic Coast.  There were a few – ginger, pepper, cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice – that simply couldn’t cope with the weather or soil – and were scarce.  Olive oil, lime juice, prunes and saffron were available, but only at high prices. 

To Be Continued…


Constitution Week – Foods of Our Forefathers

September 17, 2013

Revolutionary War

Today is Constitution Day (Constitution Week is from Sept 17th – Sept 23rd), which commemorates the formation, and signing of the U.S. Constitution by thirty-nine brave men on September 17, 1787, recognizing all who, are born in the U.S. or by naturalization, have become citizens.  Our Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, and after an extended period of national conversation and with the promise of a bill of rights, it became the supreme law of the land.  We are a proud Nation of immigrants. Throughout our history, immigrants have embraced the spirit of liberty, equality, and justice for all – the same ideals that stirred the patriots of 1776 to rise against an empire, guided the Framers as they built a stronger republic, and moved generations to bridge our founding promise with the realities of time. 

Many people wonder what it was like in those days.  What did people eat?  Today, it is possible to travel from coast to coast, at any time of the year, without feeling any need to change your eating habits.  Sophisticated processing and storage techniques, fast transport, and a creative variety of formulated convenience food products have made it possible to ignore regional and seasonal differences in food production – if it is desirable or necessary for personal reasons. 

It was not always so.  As early Americans moved about, they had to change their eating habits to fit local conditions.  Climate was one of the major limiting factors, but soil water and other vegetation play a part.  It’s easy to romanticize the food supply of early America, and there is no question that in many ways it was a vast improvement over that available in many of the immigrant’s homelands.  Inadequate yields, seasonal availability of produce, nutrition-robbing preservation techniques, constant labor, continual attention to schedules and danger of contamination were some of the factors bearing on the food supply that sustained our forefathers and foremothers as they developed our country. 

Most early immigrants from Europe were accustomed to a limited, monotonous diet.  Fresh meat was an infrequent main course on the tables of the working classes.  Two meal’s worth of meat per week was regarded as good treatment for a servant.  Game was the property of the Royal Family in most countries, and killing a deer was a capital offense. “Milk, butter and cheese are the laborers dyet, and a pot of good beer quickens his spirit,” said Breton, an English author, in 1626.

Only a handful of vegetables were known in Europe, prior to the discovery and settling of the New World.  The short list included root vegetables such as beets, carrots, radishes, turnips and parsnips, plus cabbages, onions, leeks and lentils.  There was a considerable variety of fruits and berries, but they were available only during a short harvest.  

To Be Continued…

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