Friday, July 3, 2015
July Fourth: What Would George Washington Eat?
Tomorrow people around the country will celebrating the anniversary of the USA's birth as a country. In today's culinary tradition many of these good folks will fire up their grills and cook up the grilling season's standards such as burgers or hot dogs. For the more "adventurous" types some chicken or even sausages might find their way onto the grill. I myself will be cooking up some tasty fajitas. But have you ever stopped to consider what food was consumed during the pre-colonial and post independence United States? The stuff they ate was very different than the out door feasts we have now.
Food back then was quite varied. Just like now region played a part in what you were eating. However, there were some common threads throughout the colonies and subsequent young country. To start off with meat was used to supplement meals than as a main feature. Meat was either expensive or had to be hunted. Large cuts of meat in were usually reserved for special occasions and large parties. Some of the most common meats came from wild game such as venison or other small woodland creatures. One affect of the revolutionary war was that cattle raising had begun on a small scale during the French-Indian War, but when the American Revolution came, farmers were able to increase their cattle holdings and increase the presence of beef in the American diet. Turkey was a plentiful and popular mainstay in colonial America. It was a free and easy source of food for the colonials since they roamed wild in the forests. It was so beloved by Benjamin Franklin that he wanted to make it a national symbol!
Seafood was another popular source of protein. Given the access to bodies of water, both fresh and saltwater, it is easy to see how seafood of all types was enjoyed. One of the most popular items was oysters. They were so plentiful that some streets were paved in oyster shells. Martha Washington's cookbook included multiple recipes for oysters. Trout and salmon were other mainstays of the colonial culinary palate. Fish was abundant and could be obtained from the rivers and oceans found in the country. Fishing in areas used for salt water fishing became dangerous during the war. That coupled with the fact that many of the boats used to fish were put towards the war effort caused these areas to be unused. Before the war, there was often talk about the excess of lobsters and cod off the shores of New England. However after the war most fishermen found that they had migrated away from these areas. Even with all these problems seafood stayed as a staple of the new United States' diet.
Farming in the colonies varied by region. The middle colonies were known as the breadbasket colonies since they grew mainly grains such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, and corn. They also raised crops such as pumpkins, squash, and beans. In the south they developed large plantations exporting corn, vegetables, grains, fruit, and livestock to the other colonies for food. The northern colonies produced number of vegetables were grown in the northern colonies, including turnips, onions, cabbage, carrots, and parsnips, along with pulses and legumes. These vegetables stored well through the colder months. Farming in New England for crops like wheat was impractical due to the poor soil. One of the most popular vegetables grown was green beans since it was also one of the easiest and sturdiest to grow. Thomas Jefferson mentions growing them several times in his "Garden Book". What is curious is that even with all these crops, colonial Americans did not enjoy eating raw veggies. They preferred them boiled.
Fruits were also common amongst the colonials. Especially popular were apples and cherries. Apples were plentiful and grew in most regions. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated cherry tree orchards. Fruits were grown seasonally so in order to eat these fruits out of season they were preserved as jams, sweetmeats, or just dried.
Desserts were an important part of any colonial meal. They gave an extra bit of calories in the form of sugar and fat. One popular dessert was fruit pies. Not only were pies a dessert, but they also were a manner of preserving fruits. Another common dessert was the pound cake. Nearly every cookbook in colonial America had a recipe for pound cake. It was a simple and long-lasting cake, which made it a great option for dessert.
As far as drink options went in colonial America, there were quite a few. The one thing missing was plain water as it was often times considered unsafe to drink. Instead colonial Americans enjoyed things such as coffee, tea, rum, whiskey, cider and beer. Hard apple cider was the most readily available and cheapest option. It was easier to make than anything else and was often produced locally. A farmer could even produce it for his own consumption. Beer, however, was also quite popular. Beer was such an important consumable to Americans that they would closely watch the stocks of barley held by farmers to ensure quality beer production. John Adams in letters to his wife Abigail asks about the barley crops to ensure enough for the production of beer. Even George Washington was known to brew his own beer. Hops, essential to production of beer, did not grow well in the colonies. It only grew wild in the New World, and needed to be imported from England and elsewhere. Even children drank small beer.
There you have it. A small sampling of what may have been eaten during that very first Fourth of July! Its a far cry from the backyard cuisine of today. Maybe next year I will have roasted turkey with boiled green beans, a nice pint of beer and a slice of cherry pie. On second thought, maybe not!