What people ate in colonial America largely depended on where they lived. Due to differences in climate, available natural resources, and the cultural heritage of the settlers themselves, the daily diet of an inhabitant of New England differed greatly from that of his counterparts in the middle colonies (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) and even more from those in the colonies. in the south.
But one constant across all 13 colonies was that aside from imported goods such as spices, molasses, and rum, people in the pre-revolutionary era mostly consumed food that they produced themselves. They sowed corn, caught fish, hunted game, and raised farm animals for meat, as well as milk to make their own butter and cheese. They planted vegetables in their vegetable gardens, brewed their own beer and pressed their own cider.
While regional, seasonal, and other differences make it difficult to generalize a typical colonial diet, the following seven foods and drinks are just a small sample of what might have been found on many colonial tables.
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With its multicolored hues of white, blue, red and brown, flint corn, also known as Indian corn, is one of the oldest varieties of corn. It was a staple food for Native Americans, who essentially saved the early settlers from starvation by teaching them how to plant the crop, when to harvest it, and how to grind it into flour. Corn has become a staple in all 13 colonies, with cornmeal being used in favorite recipes such as early pudding (corn boiled in milk) and johnnycakes, a fortifying and very portable food similar to pancakes.
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Wild Game (Including Pigeon)
Colonial forests were teeming with wild game, and turkeys, venison, rabbits and ducks were the settlers’ staple foods, rich in meat. In addition to these more well-known options (by modern standards), many settlers liked to eat carrier pigeons. Birds were incredibly abundant in colonial times, and their meat was prepared in a number of ways, including boiled, roasted, and baked into a pie, the same way we use chicken today. The carrier pigeon was such a popular dish, in fact, that the birds eventually died out; the last known carrier pigeon died in 1914.
Like many colonial dishes, the pigeon pie had British roots and a recipe was included in Eliza Smith’s recipe. The complete housewife: or Companion of Gentlewoman Accomplished, a cookbook originally published in London which became the first to be published in the colonies in 1742. The popularity of Smith’s book reflected the dominant influence of British cuisine on colonial rule. The complete housewife would probably have been found in any well-to-do household at the end of the colonial era, when the mid-day “dinner” could consist of three courses, with several courses per course.
“They eat premium British food,” says Lavada Nahon, a culinary historian specializing in the 17th and 19th century Mid Atlantic region. “We’re not talking about post-industrial British cuisine here, this is the pinnacle of British cuisine.”
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Meat in a pot
In an era long before refrigeration, popular methods of preserving food included drying, salting, smoking and brining, or a combination of these. Another method used to preserve meat was stuffing. This involved cooking the meat and wrapping it tightly in a jar, then coating it with butter, lard, or tallow (beef fat) before coating it. Repotting kept the meat safe for weeks, if not months; the cooks would then open the pot and cut the pieces to serve for a meal.
Another common way of preserving food was pickling, an ancient method that settlers used for everything from meat and fish to fruits and vegetables. A dish of pickled vegetables was a favorite side dish on colonial tables, while beef was typically marinated in vinegar and brine and kept in large wooden barrels. Colonial brines were likely flavored with salt, saltpeter, and spices, but they would not have contained garlic, which Nahon said was considered purely medicinal until the 19th century.
Jumble cookies – sometimes spelled “jumbal” – can be considered the ancestors of modern sugar cookies, albeit much less sweet. The recipes appeared in cookbooks in England as early as 1585, and cookies became a popular staple in the colonies. “You’ll find thousands of loose cookie recipes,” says Nahon; even Martha Washington would have hers. A recipe in The complete housewife asks for egg whites, flour, sugar, and caraway seeds crushed into a paste, and Nahon says colonial cooks often seasoned their cookies in bulk with rosewater, an import from the Middle East which reflected the vibrant commerce and open-minded culture that Dutch settlers had established in the Middle East Colonies from the beginning. “There was a variety of dining options here,” says Nahon. “When you say the colonial era, everyone thinks everything is gray, but it’s so wrong. We have a lot of wealth here.
Black pepper’s antibacterial properties make it a good preservative, and this imported spice has taken center stage in Pepper Cake, a gingerbread flavored with black pepper and molasses and sprinkled with candied fruit. The classic colonial-era recipe for “Pepper Cakes You’ll Keep For Half a Year” has been included in The cookbook, a handwritten manuscript given to Martha Washington on the occasion of her marriage to her first husband, Daniel Custis, in 1749.
American settlers drank a lot of alcohol, and this popular 18th-century dessert drink combined sweet whipped cream with wine or cider. The resulting frothy concoction was often served on special occasions. Amelia Simmons American kitchen, which in 1796 became the first cookbook by an American to be published in the United States, included a syllabub recipe that asked the cook to flavor the cider with sugar, grate nutmeg in it, and milk a cow directly in the liquor.