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Food In Colonial America History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Americans are eating more food than ever before F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens Americas Future 2012. Americans like their food. To reiterate, the average American eats about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year (Whitman). Food for many is not simply subsistence, but something to be enjoyed. Food is something that can bring family and friends together, can bring back special memories, and can release happy endorphins. However, America’s first colonists were looking at food as something not so much as to be enjoyed, but to provide fuel so they would be able to survive one more day in the New World. As time went on, colonial cuisine metamorphosed into something truly distinct from the rest of the world and it continued to evolve into what is America’s realm of food today.

The Jamestown settlers, the first permanent settlers of America, were stuck in their old British aristocratic ways. When they finally sailed to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they were faced with a major dilemma because of their stubbornness; they needed food to live but would not go out of their comfort zone for it. Jamestown, Virginia, was not England; it was not hospitable to the newcomers. They were not accustomed to hunting, to the soil that rejected their grains, and the animals and plants that did not exist in Europe. One would think that the starving Jamestown settlers would have sought help sooner from the Native Americans who had lived on the land for thousands of years but they would not dare purge on the “savages'” food. After a while though, they had no choice and had to learn about maize, which is the Indian word for corn, and it would later become a staple in their diet. In addition, Indians were able to teach them about some of the game that roamed about. The learning was gained primarily through trading, and the smoothness of trading could be attributed to James Smith. Although, once he left back to England, the settlers went through a winter they dubbed “starving time”. Their fatal mistakes were that they did not want to farm or hunt since in England that was a lower class person’s job and that they searched for gold when they first arrived. James Smith’s truism accurately applies to not only the Jamestown settlers but colonists in general, “No work, no food” (“A Brief History of Jamestown.”).

Trade with the Powhatan Indians

Powhatan Indians trading fish, corn, and bread for metal trinkets in Jamestown.

The colonists had a long journey to go on regarding food. If they wanted to live in America they had to open up their minds and mouths to new cuisine. In many of the colonies edible plants and animals were there in huge amounts that just seemed to be asking to be eaten but for a long time the colonists would not eat such plants or animals. For example, tomatoes and oysters at first were widely unaccepted by society, and therefore were not eaten, even though both would have provided great nutrition for the colonists. Fortunately, after some time, the colonists were able to pick up the Native American’s diet and other “low class” diets and mix their traditional foods from home together to create a whole new kind of diet that could only be labeled American.

Although food varied from region to region some things were generally the same. Most American colonists had an early breakfast. Following that they then would have their biggest meal of the day, dinner, but modern Americans would think of it as lunch since it usually was eaten in the middle of the day. Then late in the evening they would have a light supper.

The colonies’ cooking processes were also very similar. For many years, a fireplace was their main way to cook food. Fire was used for boiling, and the coals for broiling (Taylor). They would place a pot over the fire suspended on a rod as shown in the picture below.

New England kitchen, note pot in fireplace on right and how the room functions not just as a kitchen.Then a new kitchen contraption came about, a trivet, a tripod that allowed for coals to be placed under a specific pot creating a tidier and more effective working area. Kettles were used for a multitude of things like, “boiling, rendering, simmering, thickening, and curing” (Taylor). Colony Times: New England Kitchen Scene

Recreated colonial oven.Other items used to cook food included spiders, “frying pans set on three legs”, Dutch ovens, and griddles (Taylor). Housewives often got creative and innovative, using chains to lower their pots, using hoes to cook up cornmeal thus giving the name, “hoecakes”, using old coals as much as possible, and doing other things like that in an effort to make the cooking process more efficient (Whitman). Kitchens with higher technology were reserved for people with money and larger kitchens usually were utilized in Southern plantation homes or richer homes where they had to feed more than a small family. Often kitchens were made separate from the house if you were in the more fortunate bracket of wealthy people, otherwise they would be in the largest room of the house. Kitchens were dangerous, “25 percent of all women were killed by cooking accidents, notably burns from long dresses and active fires” (Taylor). Even though there was risk, women still would cook and would have the fire burning nearly all day and night long, all year long. The oven was a major part of the colonial kitchen. One day out of the week was especially set aside for baking, on this day they would keep other chores to a minimum and focus on baking bread and other goods. Early colonial ovens were modest, simple, and most of the time bee-hived shaped as shown in the picture on the left. Other culinary helpers such as buckets and paddles that would make cheese or butter were often made out of wood and other kitchen aids were made out of clay. Glass was very expensive at first for the colonists and so glass bottles and cups usually found homes that belonged to the wealthy. Another object that when it first merged onto the scene was considered a luxury was the fork. Forks eventually moved down the social class ladder and gained more prongs. Nevertheless, spoons and knives had been common since the settlers first arrived in Jamestown. http://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/projects/images/clay_oven7.jpg

So the colonists used all those things to cook but what did they cook? It varied region to region and class to class but overall the colonist’s diet consisted mainly of meat and bread.

The New England colonists were not blessed with good soil but great harbors. Shellfish, lobster, and other seafood like oysters and clams were abundant and allowed for a plethora of chowders to be created. Salmon was another source of food for the New Englanders since the fish populated their rivers well. Since wheat did not take to the soil, most of the time they would replace the grain with corn to make bread. A lot of the chowders and dishes have influences that can be traced back to the French Huguenots and fur trappers from Canada that traveled about or settled down in the most northern colonies (Taylor). Later in the years, the colonists did grow fruit orchards, most commonly apples. New Englanders also ate their share in berries. Berries that were eaten by the New England colonists included, “blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries” (“Colonial New England Food & Cooking.”). Another food that was unique to New England compared to the other regions other than cranberries was maple syrup and maple sugar. Additionally, a factor that influenced the diet of the colonists was that Puritanism was the dominant religion and in general it stressed the importance of not being gluttonous. Subsequently, the idea that food should be eaten to feed your body, not to excite the taste buds, stemmed from that ideal.

The middle colonies had a lot of Dutch influence since a large portion of their population was Dutch. Also, the middle colonies were going to become the “bread basket” out of the three regions since they eventually were to produce wheat at a great rate. This gave them an impetus to make more dishes involving white flour than the other colonies. The middle colonies also housed New York, a huge city where numerous races but especially the Dutch gave their influence on food in the area quickly. “Cookies, waffles, sausage, cabbage, lentils, rye bread and soups” all were either from the Dutch or highly liked by the Dutch and therefore transformed New York’s food culture as soon as it could (Taylor). Furthermore, Quakers primarily lived in this region, and like the Puritans, discouraged wasteful eating.

Southern colonies tended to have more fruits than the other two regions as their climate was more favorable for growing them. In addition, like the regions mentioned previously, the southern colonies also had religious influences on their diet. Especially in Maryland where the population was predominately Catholic, on Fridays they would only consume fish and not any other kind of meat. A regional specialty was sweet potatoes. Another aspect unique to the Southern colonies was that they did not consume as much dairy since milk simply would not last as long in their climate (Whitman).

There were a lot of similarities though between the colonies and what they ate. Pork dominated in the meat department. One of the main reasons being that pigs were so easy to raise and take care of. Larger animals typically were not hunted since their methods of preservation did not allow them to effectively preserve the creatures. Game included venison, where in England it was considered a rich man’s sport to hunt (Taylor). Turkey, pigeon, geese, quail, woodcock, and ducks were all birds that were actively hunted (Taylor). All of these animals were thriving, visitors to America wrote how sometimes there would be so many ducks flying overhead that they would black out the sky (Whitman). Turtles and squirrels were eaten. Beaver was also incorporated into dishes by frying or broiling its tail (Taylor). Sturgeon, eels, and stingrays were so abundant that colonists could spear with swords the stingrays and catch the others in a blink of an eye (Taylor).Cows, pigs, sheep, goats, honeybees, and chickens were imported. So were many of the fruits like apricots, apples, and peaches that took a while to become a part of the colonist’s diet. Carrots as well were introduced to America during the colonial era. “Africans brought black-eyed peas” (Taylor). Rice came into America around the year 1720. Colonists lacked vegetables and fruit in the early years, which resulted in health problems like pellagra and gout. After that initial hump though, the colonists were able to eat wild leeks, squashes (which were acquired from the Native Americans), potatoes, and carrots (which later turned wild and created a new subgenre of carrot). One of the ways that they partly made up the deficiencies obtained from the lack of vegetables was through nuts. Colonists would occasionally eat acorns but “black walnuts, chestnuts, hickory, beech, and pecans…grew wild and were eaten” more often (Taylor). Herbs like, basil, clove pink, and thyme were also put to good use by the colonists in food and medicine (Miller-Cory House Education Committee).

Gardner Bakery’s cranberry apple pie, stylized like from colonial times. For breakfast colonists would typically have porridge. The wealthier would have a more elaborate breakfast that would include fruits. Meals usually were made from a “one pot system”. As a result of the one pot system, stews, pot roasts, and puddings became the norm for the colonial dinner. Pies and pastries were also a part of the colonist’s diet and were more like stews encased in bread than the pies we know today, as displayed on the left. The colonists also shared a sweet tooth, and the sweeteners that were “in” changed over the years from honey, to sugar, and then to molasses. http://www.gardnerpie.com/images/colonial/colonialapplecran_sm.jpg

Preservation methods did not vary too much from region to region. Meats, fruits, and herbs were dried by the sun. Sometimes they would pickle, smoke, or cure their meats in an attempt to preserve them. Often surpluses of fruit instead of letting them go bad were converted into alcoholic beverages.

Alcoholic beverages were a huge facet of an American colonist’s life. In Europe, the water was unsafe to drink and it was expected for everyone but the extremely wealthy to drink beer since it killed off any bacteria. So when they immigrated to America, the colonists held that same distrust for water and drank beer or other alcoholic drinks to avoid getting horrendous waterborne diseases. Lots of Americans also enjoyed wine. Some entrepreneurs tried creating a world class American wine but it never caught on and imports were always considered the trendiest and best wines. In addition, brandy, gin, whiskey, and rum kept the breweries, distilleries, and America’s thirst for liquor going.

Non-alcoholic beverages that colonists drank were teas, coffees, and a chocolate drink; “chocolate” was reserved for those who could afford it, which were not many. When the boycotts for tea happened, coffee went more into fashion since it became “patriotic” (Taylor).

Excerpt from Simmons’s cookbook, first recorded receipt (recipe) for pumpkin pie.There were some critical differences from the American’s diet compared to the Englishman’s diet. The results of the different diets could be seen in the American’s height, complexion, and life span; Americans were taller, had healthier complexions, and lived longer than new immigrants or those living in Europe (Taylor). Some of the reasons that Americans were healthier were because there was so much food to go around and they had added variety into their diet. The changes in diet can also be marked in the aptly named America’s first cook book, American Cookery, or, The art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables; and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves: and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plumb to the plain cake, adapted to this country, and all grades of life, which was written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons (Whitman). Historians call her cookbook the first American cookbook because it used ingredients not found in Europe like pumpkins, corn meal, and squash. Another facet of the colonist’s life that was not like their fellow “cousins” across the sea was how they ate. Englishmen wrote of their travels often complaining about how the nation “gulps, gobbles, and goes”, they were appalled by the lack of silverware, and how Americans would “plunge into their mouths enormous wedges of meat and pounds of vegetables, perched on the ends of their knives” (Whitman). http://www.kitchenproject.com/history/Pumpkin/New%20Folder/PumpkinPie.jpg


The significance of American colonial food is not something people reflect on but they should. Four hundred and five years ago it mattered what people ate and it still matters now. Food helps establish social classes. In the colonial times it helped break social class boundaries at first because the aristocratic people would die if they did not eat what they thought they were “too good for”. Food contributes to the overall health of a person, and thus a nation. America’s food was making the colonists stronger than a lot of the other countries’ peoples and this would be invaluable when America started fighting the war for independence in 1776. Also, other countries thought Americans were doing well for themselves since they had full bellies thus attracting more immigrants. That was also part of the charm of American cuisine; immigrants did not have to lose their culinary traditions completely but could add them to “the melting pot”. Food helps define a culture, a country, and the new diet gave fodder for America’s reasoning that she had become too different from her “mother England” and therefore needed to separate. Additionally, colonial food influenced the food we have now. Pumpkin pie, BBQ, clam chowder, and many other dishes can trace their way back to colonists in early America; I personally cannot imagine a life without pumpkin pie, BBQ, and clam chowder. There are also the social ties to food that lasted centuries; in colonial times it was better to have lots of food available, not necessarily to eat at one time, but it was a way to show hospitality and wealth (Whitman). Basically it was a positive thing to have big portions and that attitude of more on the plate the better has lasted into modern times.

What If #1

What if there was no food? What if every single person that came up to America and perhaps by magic, could not find one bit of food? Not a fish, acorn, rabbit, turtle, or edible bug, nothing. They also could not grow anything, and every time they tried to import something as soon as they would step on land, it would disappear into thin air. However, Indians would still be able to live life as usual and therefore have food. I imagine that something similar would happen to what happened with Salt Lake City in Utah, when the lake that gave the city its name was actually salt water, someone wrote horrible accounts of the place and people stayed away for a while. Even if Europe continued to eye America for gold and spices, if there could never be colonial food, there could never be life. Maybe the Indians would not have had such horrible tragedies befall upon them, no trail of tears, no tears from seeing their brothers killed and their rights stripped away. This also means that there would be no United States of America and that Europe would have had needed to find another place for so many of its people to immigrate to. Maybe there would not have been World War I or II, but a war that would be unbelievably worse.

What If #2

What if American colonial food never evolved into American colonial food and had just stayed British? This could have resulted in death. The colonists would have died rather than eat corn, or pumpkins, or squash, or the other new American plants. They would have not eaten the huge amounts of game that pranced about in America simply because they had not seen or eaten such animals in England. When the time came to boycott tea, they would not have been able to. If they longed for British food so badly and were dying, I imagine most of them would go back to England. Then another European country would send in its people and they would colonize and then America would not have Anglo-Saxon roots, but something else. Maybe then Great Britain would strike back later or maybe that one European country would rule it until its people revolt. Or maybe they never revolt. If that were to happen maybe I would be writing this essay in French instead of American English. Another possible outcome of this “what if” is that numerous countries fight to colonize America, Native Americans are pitting country against country, and after so many years America ends up being broken into different countries. Either what if ends up with America not getting colonized by Great Britain thus changing history forever.


When looking at the list of possible semester event topics I got so scared to end up with something that I would dread spending time on and have to pull teeth to work on, so I was very relieved to find that I could pick my own topic. I spent a lot of time looking for a topic that suited me. I knew I wanted to do something that involved the culture of the colonies and had considered doing something about weddings and taverns but there just was not enough information on either one. Then I thought about doing colonial cuisine. I love food and it touched on everything I thought was interesting, beverages, social functions, different races and their food. So I went for it.

Even though I had a general idea of some of the aspects of colonial food I discussed, some of the things I read I found really alarming or funny. I had no idea that such a common way to die was from cooking, “25 percent of all women were killed by cooking accidents” (Taylor). I felt like I had appreciated how much easier and safer it is to cook now before, but now I appreciate it even more. I also did not know the extent of America’s bounty like how there were so many ducks that they could fly over and turn the sky black for a few seconds. In addition, I did not know how unhealthy the colonial diet was in the early years in some ways, like how they ate too much meat and not enough vegetables. It gives me more insight on how the poor and the slaves lived life especially, how miserable their meals were and how even more miserable those meals would be if they were the poor in England.

Book Review

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America From 1607- 1783 by Dale Taylor was phenomenal to work with. I was able to check it out from the school’s library. It has pictures, links to videos, and diagrams, basically every visual you need to understand what the author is trying to explain. The book goes over literally everything from everyday life in Colonial America from food, architecture, clothing, religion, professions, to government. Even though my topic was only covered on thirteen pages, the book has really small print so I got more information than what I expected. The couple negative things I have to say about it, is that it tends to group everything together or it will generalize occasionally. However, it gives you further readings that you can use to expand your knowledge and fill in any gaps you may have. Future APUSH students, if you are doing your semester event on a social aspect of America this book is worth checking out because it will give you some useful information.


“American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, 1796.” Foodhistory.com. Patricia B. Mitchell, Web. 5 Dec. 2012. .

“A Brief History of Jamestown.” Historyisfun.org. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Web. 1 Dec. 2012.

“Colonial & Early American Fare.” Foodtimeline.org. Lynne Olver, Web. 2 Dec. 2012. .

“Colonial New England Food & Cooking.” Agriculturalmuseum.org. Pearson Education Inc., Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

“Colonial Pies.” Gardnerpie.com. Gardner Pie Company, Web. 4 Dec. 2012. .

“The Middle Colonies.” Ed101.bu.edu. Boston University, 2007. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Salisbury, Joyce E. and Peter Seelig. “Food in Colonial North America.” Daily Life through History. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Taylor, Dale. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America From 1607-1783. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 1997. Print.

Whitman, Sylvia. The History of American Food: What’s Cooking? Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2001. Print.

Ziegler, Gregory R. “The Bread Oven: Symbol of Colonial Liberty/A Large Clay Oven.” Engr.psu.edu. The Pennsylvania State University, n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2012. .

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