James Comer. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
The food history of Native Americans before the time of Columbus involved ways of life ranging from big-game hunting to (in many cases) sophisticated agriculture. The history of foodways in North America since Columbus has been the story of five centuries of introduced foodstuffs, preparation methods, and equipment that accompanied peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the food culture of North America having been enriched by each addition.
The Sixteenth Century
Most narrative histories of North America give little attention to the sixteenth century, even though two earthshaking events took place during this time that were to alter the continent’s history fundamentally. One was the demographic collapse of the native populations in the face of Eurasian diseases, such as smallpox. This made possible the second, which was the establishment of European settlements along the eastern seaboard without substantial native resistance.
The Native Americans
The peoples of North America, who numbered perhaps 20 million in 1492, dwelled in societies of many different types, with their cultures shaped by their foodways. Thus, those who depended on hunting and gathering usually lived in roaming bands, whereas maize agriculture normally implied settled life in villages or towns. In the north and west of the continent, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle still predominated in 1492. Game varied from bison on the Great Plains to rats in the deserts of the Southwest. Men hunted and women gathered in these usually nomadic, band-level societies. Some bands, like the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, grew one crop, such as tobacco, and hunted and gathered the remainder of their food supply (Prins 1996). It is important to note that the European picture of Indians as primitives did not allow for such sophistication. The Mi’kmaq knew perfectly well what agriculture was but chose to obtain their food from the wild and to plant only tobacco, which the wild could not provide. Where a staple food could be collected easily, such as in parts of California (where acorns were the daily fare) or in northern Minnesota (where wild rice was the staple), the natives frequently formed settlements (Linsenmeyer 1976).
An agricultural complex had been developing for centuries in eastern North America when Ponce de León stepped ashore in 1513. Older staples, such as Jerusalem artichoke and sumpweed, had given way to Mexican maize, beans, and squash. Varieties of maize adapted to extreme conditions permitted horticulture to flourish as far north as the Dakotas.
In the Southeast and the Mississippi Valley, the area of the Mississippian culture, intensive agriculture supported cities resembling those of Mexico and Peru, with thousands of inhabitants, elaborate social systems, and multiple castes (Duncan 1995). Maize, beans, and squash, along with fish and game, fed the masses. A ceremonial beverage made from yaupon holly, called “black drink,” was a caffeine-containing stimulant similar to tea or coffee (Hudson 1979). (It is strange that alcohol was almost unknown among North American natives, although some made a sort of ale from maize or maple sap; after European contact, however, alcoholism would become a serious problem for them.) The “Gentleman of Elvas,” chronicler of Hernando De Soto’s expedition (1539-42), described one Mississippian city – near the future site of Augusta, Georgia – that was ruled by a queen he called the “Lady of Cofachiqui” from a pyramidal mound topped by her large wooden house (Duncan 1995). Fields of maize stretched as far as the horizon. The surplus from the fields went into granaries to feed people in need – a mark of true civil society (Crosby 1986). Clearly, these people and others, like those who built the mounds at Cahokia in Illinois (Middle Mississippian ancestors of the Siouan-speaking Indians), had sophisticated state-level societies with governmental systems, long-distance trade, and complex religions.
Cofachiqui also had four huge barns wherein the dead from a smallpox epidemic were mummified, and by 1650, her elaborate society had vanished, likely because of further outbreaks of disease (Duncan 1995). Perhaps 90 percent of North America’s native population died in a series of “virgin-soil” epidemics, and much knowledge of foodstuffs and other cultural traditions was lost forever in this immense demographic disaster (Crosby 1986).
In addition to their deadliness, the epidemics were demoralizing, as traditional religious and medical practices proved useless. Some Native Americans believed that the end of the world had come, and needless to say, diseases precipitated a great deal of migration: Tribes moved to escape the pathogens, to flee from enemies that they were too weak to resist, or to invade the territory of decimated foes. The map of aboriginal America was altered beyond the scholar’s power to reconstruct. The Mississippian peoples vanished, and tribes having no knowledge of the origin of the great mounds took their places.
The Spanish Borderland Settlements
During the sixteenth century, Spanish priests and soldiers established several missions in the Southeast. St. Augustine was the most important, but others came into being along the coasts of Georgia, Carolina, and (briefly) Virginia. Both literary and archaeological evidence indicate that the Spanish imported a large amount of food, including wine and wheat flour (Milanich 1995). But more important for day-to-day survival were native foodstuffs, such as maize, yaupon, and wild game, provided by Indians living at the missions.
Spanish explorers also distributed wheat flour to native rulers and passed out European seeds as gifts to natives, with translated instructions for growing them; the peach orchards of the Mississippi Natchez stand as testimony to how far these plants spread (Farb 1968; Milanich 1995). In the warm climate, mission gardens yielded favorites brought from Europe, such as melons, figs, hazelnuts, oranges, chickpeas, greens, herbs, peas, garlic, barley, pomegranates, cucumbers, wine grapes, cabbage, lettuce, and even sugarcane. In addition, the Spanish carried the sweet potato of the Caribbean to Florida, where it was previously unknown (Milanich 1995).
Such plant transfers – not only from the Old World to the New but also from one area of the New World to another – resulted in confused, albeit enriched, foodways. Moreover, as Alfred Crosby (1986) has pointed out, Old World species exhibited an ability to edge out their New World counterparts, with “ecological imperialism” the result. Large numbers of wild horses, cattle, and hogs multiplied in an environment free of accustomed predators, and even the honeybee (native to Eurasia) thrived, while the pollen it spread about fertilized imported European plants that depended upon it. The result was an abundance of food in virtually all the neo-European societies of the New World – a situation that has continued to the present (Crosby 1986).
The Seventeenth Century
The Chesapeake Region
The seventeenth century saw the planting of permanent English colonies in North America, including the beginning of European settlement of the Chesapeake. Colonists usually brought provisions reflecting the diet of contemporary Britain, which was based on grains, meat, and milk products. Bread, the daily staple, ranged from the mixed-grain bread of the poor to the “white” bread of the wealthy. Luxurious meals for the upper classes included elaborate spicing, many pastries, and complex cooking methods reminiscent of those of the Near East, with copious use of rose water, almonds, and currants (Hess 1992). Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (Hess 1981), a seventeenth-century manuscript recipe book (although some recipes in it are a good deal older) passed down in the Custis family of Virginia, provides a glimpse of this cuisine, with its profusion of custard curd dishes, rose water, garlic (later to be virtually forbidden), almond-scented meats, and practical hints on preserving foodstuffs (cherries, peas, turnips, and even oysters pickled in barrels) and distilling homemade medicines. Among other recipes is one for apple pie, foreshadowing its status as an American icon; oat “greats” (groats), soon to be replaced by American “grits” of corn (maize), are mentioned as well.
In the mid-1580s, English settlers landed on Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina, but the first permanent British colony was Jamestown, Virginia, established in 1607 by 105 Englishmen, among whom there was but a single farmer. In an ensuing period of starvation, poisonous “Jimson” weeds, oysters, maize (stolen from the local Powhatan Indians), and even, apparently, human flesh kept the colonists from dying out completely (Smallzreid 1956). Thereafter, much more attention was paid to crops. British wheat did poorly in the climate of the Chesapeake, and the settlers came to depend on cornbread, grits, and pork. Their hogs ate maize, along with acorns and peanuts. “Ashcake” and “hoecake,” baked in ashes on the blade of a hoe, were the staples of poor whites and, later, of black slaves, some of whom had known maize in Africa because of the slave traders, who imported the plant to feed slaves awaiting transport to the Americas. Bread was baked on coals or fried in pork fat, and meat was roasted, fried, or boiled (Fischer 1989). Cornbread was the food of the poor because of the ease with which maize could be grown, but the wealthy enjoyed its taste as well (Horry 1984). However, an overreliance on maize was to lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies in the South, with poor health a consequence (Kiple and King 1981).
It is worth noting that some food historians attribute numerous American dishes, ranging from strawberry shortcake to Brunswick stew, and their means of preparation to the native peoples (Root and de Rochemont 1976). However, although the native origin of such foodstuffs as maize and venison is obvious, a survey of the foodways of the Powhatans of Virginia reveals that they contributed little that was exotic to the English settlers. For example, a feast prepared in 1607 at Arrohateck, Virginia, included mulberries and strawberries boiled with beans, cornbread, “meale,” and a “land turtle” – hardly sophisticated fare (Rountree 1989).The truth of the matter was that the Indians of the Eastern Woodlands lacked salt and spices (even the hot peppers of Mexico and Peru), as well as frying pans and other iron utensils, ovens, wheat, sugar, dairy products, and all domestic animals save the dog. Thus, to assert that strawberry shortcake derives from an Indian dish that was nothing more than berries and maize or beans boiled together is, perhaps, something of an exaggeration. It is important not to confuse the Indians of North America with those of Central or South America: Although many have written that the native peoples of North America had, for example, the potato and the chilli pepper, as did, respectively, the Inca and the Aztecs, this was simply not the case.
The Massachusetts area received its first white settlers with the Mayflower in late 1620. Following a harsh winter during which many of them died, the colonists learned from the Native American Wampanoags how to hunt and fish in the new land and how to plant crops. The following November established a landmark in American culinary history: the first “thanksgiving dinner,” prepared by the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag hosts. In truth, the modern Thanksgiving holiday dates back only to Civil War times, and as for the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving, there is no mention of the famous turkey.
In 1630, 1,000 colonists arrived on the 17 ships of the Winthrop fleet to found the Massachusetts Bay colony. Their provisions included cheese, salt fish, pork and beef, oatmeal, hard biscuit, bread and butter, peas, onions, raisins, prunes, and dates, with cider, beer, water, sweet wine, and small amounts of brandy, called “aqua vitae” (Smallzreid 1956). Because a virgin-soil epidemic had reportedly annihilated the local Indians in 1617, the landing of the settlers went unchallenged, and they proceeded to found a colony of self-sufficient farmers. They ate well, if somewhat monotonously; an average of 3,200 to 5,000 calories a day was the norm in New England (Derven 1984). As did their neighbors to the south, these settlers also consumed maize meal, both as porridge and as bread or “johnnycake,” but the diet did not focus on “hog and hominy,” as it did in Virginia.
The use of land for small farms meant that both rich people and poor were rare in New England (Lockridge 1985). The cold climate enabled rye to grow successfully, resulting in “rye’n’injun” (“rye and Indian,” a bread baked with rye and maize meal) and “Boston brown bread,” made from rye, wheat, and maize that was steamed over a kettle of beans cooking with pork and molasses. (The careful cook allowed the residual heat of the oven to keep beans warm for Sundays, when – for religious reasons – no cooking or other work was permitted.) Although yeast will not act well on any grain but wheat, the rye and maize breads of colonial America could be raised with “pearl ash” (potassium bicarbonate, made from wood ashes) or with beaten eggs (Hess 1992). The most ubiquitous dishes were pies, baked (like bread and beans) in wood-fired brick ovens modeled after those used in England. Indeed, a “Yankee” was to be defined as someone who ate pie for breakfast. The types of pies reflected the seasonal availability of fruits; and because the pie makers made use of first one fruit and then another throughout the year, there was a virtual calendar of pies (Fischer 1989).
Molasses was the usual sweetener (white sugar was expensive), and it was also employed in making rum. Drinking in New England centered on alcoholic beverages, with hard cider and some beer competing with rum. Although wine grapes would not grow, bees thrived, and a few settlers managed to make honey mead, which they had known in England (Wolcott 1971). Bread, cookies, and even beer could be made from pumpkins, which were a staple for New Englanders. In fact, the ease of growing pumpkins meant that “old Pompion was a saint,” and “pumpkin sause [pumpkin stewed with butter, spices, and vinegar] and pumpkin bread” were on every table (Crawford 1914: 382; Wolcott 1971).
The Middle Region: Pennsylvania and New York
The New Amsterdam colony, which became New York, and the Quaker settlement in Pennsylvania were two other sites of seventeenth-century colonization, both settled by peoples whose foodways reflected diverse origins. In New Amsterdam, the Dutch relished heavy meals of meat and bread, washed down with tea (a Dutch favorite before it became popular in England) and followed by large amounts of rich pastry. Perhaps one-fourth of the houses in New Amsterdam sold beer, tobacco, or spirits (Booth 1971).
In seventeenth-century Pennsylvania, the colonists were a mixture of Quakers, other English settlers, and some Swedes (Nash 1968). David Hackett Fischer (1989) has claimed that the northern British origin of the Quakers encouraged a distinctive pattern of food-ways, of which the consumption of apple butter and dried beef was typical. By contrast, Karen Hess (1992), who has examined the Penn family cookbook and other early American sources, found nothing unique about Quaker cookery, and it has also been pointed out that the distinctive cuisine of the north of England (including Yorkshire), based on grain porridge, oatcake, and ale, did not resemble Pennsylvania cooking (Brears 1987). Thus, there is little consensus about the cuisine of the Pennsylvania Quakers (Lea 1982), although perhaps its distinctiveness could be argued because of what was not consumed. The Quakers’ wish to isolate themselves from the sinful world led to abstinence from many foodstuffs. Some, for example, refused to use sugar because it was made by slaves. Others rejected spices, saying that they altered the taste of food (Fischer 1989).
The Spanish Borderlands
By the 1600s, the Spanish settlements along the Carolina and Virginia coasts had been abandoned, although St. Augustine in Florida continued as home to a small Spanish colony that imported much of its food. Aside from game, the local foodstuffs consumed were maize and yaupon holly, from which was made the Indians’ “black drink,” containing caffeine. A priest explained that yaupon was drunk “every day in the morning and evening” and that “any day that a Spaniard does not drink it, he feels that he is going to die” (Sturtevant 1979: 150)
In the Southwest, which had been settled from Mexico during the sixteenth century, the traditional cookery of Native Americans came to include Spanish imports, such as domesticated food animals, sugar, tea, and coffee. As the hunter-gatherer Navaho and many other tribes became pastoralists, they adopted a diet of mutton, bread, and coffee (Driver 1961). Perhaps ironically, many Indian groups in the Southwest learned maize agriculture from the Spaniards, and beef and maize became the staples for many in this ranching land. Food was plentiful, if judged by a book on early California cooking that lists five daily meals. For dinner, a well-off family in Spanish California might have a selection of foods that mixed Iberian fruit preserves and wine, a salad of local pigweed, Mexican tortillas, beans, and succotash, and such European-influenced dishes as fried rice and coffee (Smallzreid 1956).
The Eighteenth Century
In America, the eighteenth century brought a “golden age” for the planters of the Chesapeake region. Cultural amalgamation among the several colonies meant the end of religious uniqueness for the New England Puritans and Pennsylvania Quakers. The Indians were forced beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the colonies’ political consolidation that began with the Albany Plan of Union ended with American independence and the Constitution of the United States. This political union meant that, in the long run, neither the Native Americans nor the Spaniards would retain their lands. The field of cookery also became “independent,” as English cookbooks were succeeded by the first American cookbooks.
In all American societies, food availability depended on the seasons. Autumn saw an abundance, but late winter and early spring meant the “six weeks’ want” (Farrington 1976). It was a time when greens and roots were used to relieve the monotony of stale meal and beans before the first garden vegetables came in. The southern colonies had longer growing seasons and thus less of an annual time of “want.” However their warmer climate encouraged a hostile disease environment, with the result that New England families were larger and life spans longer (Fischer 1989).
It has been claimed that, in general, early Americans disliked, or at least seldom consumed, vegetables, and it was certainly the case that – in an age without refrigeration – green vegetables kept poorly. Moreover, without a marketing and transportation system, availability was limited; once the season for a particular food had passed, there would be no more of it until the following year. Perhaps most importantly, modern varieties of vegetables did not exist: There was no tomato designed to ripen slowly off the vine, nor a maize cultivar that stayed sweet. To obtain and cook vegetables required a certain tenacity, and in an age ignorant of vitamins and fiber, some people simply did not bother with them.
In spite of these factors, however, many Americans seem to have enjoyed vegetables and fruits. Amelia Simmons, in compiling her 1796 cookbook, evidently assumed that any good meal included vegetables (Simmons 1965). Vegetables were cooked for longer periods than they are today (in order to ensure their safety and edibility by those with few or no teeth) but were not necessarily boiled into mush, as is sometimes asserted. The eighteenth-century South Carolina housewife Sarah Rutledge, for example, boiled her cauliflower for only 15 minutes (Rutledge 1979).
Many people raised fruits and vegetables in abundance. An example comes from an 1806 gardening calendar kept by a Charleston lady who grew fruit trees, strawberries, gooseberries, currants, raspberries, thyme, savory, hyssop, peas, beans, cabbage, lettuce, endive, potatoes, artichokes, and Jerusalem artichokes (Tucker 1993). Thomas Jefferson and his Paris-trained slave-chef James Hemings kept a huge garden of peas, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, parsley, kale, tarragon, broccoli, spinach, “corn salad,” endive, savory, turnips, carrots, beets, salsify, parsnips, radishes, onions, eggplant, melons, and beans (Tucker 1993). They even sprouted endive in the cellar to provide salads in wintertime.
In the eighteenth century, the people of Massachusetts were suppliers of rum for slavers and ships for whaling and fishing. The colony was a hub of trade: Spices and foodstuffs from all corners of the globe passed through New England markets. However, its own cooking centered mostly, as before, on bread, beans, fish, and salt meat. The British habits of overcooking meat and greens persisted, as did such customs as brewing special beers for special occasions (Crawford 1914). Quilting bees ended with tea served in the English style, featuring sweets, “sage cheese” (flavored with that herb), and pastries (Crawford 1914). A favorite meal was the “boiled dinner” comprised of boiled meats and vegetables and, perhaps, boiled “bag pudding” for dessert (Farrington 1976).
Substantial meals were the rule, and pie for breakfast meant plenty of calories to start the day. A visitor to Boston in 1740 remarked on the abundance of poultry, fish, venison, and butcher’s meat available. The ordination of a minister called for a celebratory meal of turkeys, pumpkins, cakes, and rum. Harvard students, however, ate meager meals of cold bread and hot chocolate (Crawford 1914).There was little opposition to alcohol consumption in early America, and pastor and congregation alike drank it before Sunday church services, as well as at every meal (Rorabaugh 1979). In addition to huge amounts of bread, porridge, and cheese, the average New Englander annually consumed some 32 gallons of hard cider, 15 pounds of butter, 40 gallons of milk, between 2 and 3 pounds of tea, more than 150 pounds of meat, 10 pounds of sugar, and 1 gallon of molasses (Derven 1984).
Trade made the merchant class wealthy in what had once been an egalitarian colony, and the menus of the wealthy could be elaborate. John Adams, certainly well-to-do, served a dinner of Indian pudding with molasses and butter, veal, bacon, neck of mutton (a dish also featured in Martha Washington’s cookbook), and vegetables (Fritz, 1969). A Quaker friend outdid Adams with “ducks, hams, chickens, beef, pig, tarts, creams, custards, jellies, fowls, trifles, floating islands [a custard dish], beer, porter, punch, and wine” (Smallzreid 1956: 61). Nonetheless, despite such heavy eating habits, the old Puritan ideals died hard: Jokes had it that a New England family made the same roast gander serve as a main course for seven days in a row (Crawford 1914)!
The Middle Region
In the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania became home for large numbers of German settlers (later known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”). Deemed not assimilable by many, they colonized the back country and prospered. Many joined the great migration southward along the Appalachian Mountains and ended up in Virginia and the Carolinas. Along with the iron cook-stove, these Germans contributed waffles, “shoofly pie,” scrapple, new kinds of sausage, vinegar, and more pastries – including doughnuts (Farrington 1976).
Technological innovations spread from the middle colonies. By 1750, a cast-iron pot – with a rim on the lid to hold coals – was in common use. Called a “Dutch oven,” it was used to bake bread, roast meats, and make stews and other dishes; in modified form, it has remained in use to this day (Ragsdale 1991). The famous stove of inventor and ambassador Benjamin Franklin improved on German models. Franklin was perhaps the most famous vegetarian of his time, having been inspired by English vegetarian and pacifist Thomas Tryon (Spencer 1995). Franklin eschewed meat and beer in order to improve his health and drew up lists of vegetarian dishes for his landlady to prepare. Toward the end of his life, however, he returned to eating some meat.
As the century came to a close, the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia had 248 taverns and 203 boardinghouses (Pillsbury 1990). Its diverse population of English, Germans, Swedes, and Africans contributed to a varied cuisine, including the famous “Philadelphia pepper pot,” which, although attributed to George Washington’s cook, is similar to a Caribbean dish of the same name.
Like Pennsylvania, New York contained a mixture of cultures. Foods in this port city included so much fish and fowl that servants (who apparently wanted more meat) complained if salmon was served more than once a week or heath hen (a bird now extinct) more than three times (Farrington 1976). Such an abundance of animal food on the table was unlike Old World cuisines, which relied on porridge, bread, and potatoes. Each year, two crops of peas and one of buckwheat came from the rich soil, which also produced rye, barley, maize, potatoes, and turnips (Tucker 1993). Food for the city of New York also arrived from the “garden colony” of New Jersey (Farrington 1976) and from what is now upstate New York, where Dutch and German settlers had introduced new kinds of plows and wagons to make their farms more productive. The “Dutch plow” or “Rotherham plow” (in fact, it originally derived from China) had a share and moldboard cast in one continuous piece (Temple 1986), and its advanced design greatly eased the task of plowing. The crops on Dutch farms were diverse, with those farms reflecting the intensive use of space typical of the Netherlands.
European fruits did well; farmers planted great orchards of apples to make cider, a favorite alcoholic beverage, which was often distilled into “Jersey lightning” by means of freezing it until a core of alcohol remained within the ice. But apples were also used in numerous other ways. For example, apple pie and milk were the nightly fare for “Hector St. John” (Michel G. J. de Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer) in the late eighteenth century (Sokoloff 1991). Long before the American Revolution, eating shops and taverns provided places to dine out in New York (Pillsbury 1990). One of these was the Queen’s Head (soon known as Fraunces Tavern), which opened in 1770 and was still in business over a century later (Root and de Rochemont 1976). By the end of the eighteenth century, New York had 121 taverns and 42 boardinghouses that served food and drink (Pillsbury 1990).
The Chesapeake Region and the South
As mentioned, the eighteenth century was a “golden age” for some in the Virginia tidewater. The period saw a shift from tobacco monoculture to the mixed growing of tobacco and grain, although the former continued to dominate the region. Plantations worked by African slaves yielded an abundance of maize and other foodstuffs, and maize remained the staple for the slaves, as well as for poor whites. For others, there was either bread (made from dough that rose by the addition of beaten egg) or “beaten biscuit” (made with wheat flour) that was laid on a stump and struck repeatedly with an ax handle until it began to rise (Farrington 1976).
The predominance of maize in baking meant much cornbread, almost always eaten hot; when cornmeal was fried, the result was “hush puppies.” Maize was also fed to hogs, the principal source of meat in the South until the twentieth century. In addition, the mash made from maize was distilled into corn whiskey, which was popular even before the Revolution. Later, with rum from the British West Indies more difficult to obtain, corn whiskey became the liquid staple of what has been termed the “alcoholic republic” (Rorabaugh 1979). Rum or whiskey was mixed with water and sugar to become toddy; with fruit and sugar, it was punch (Farrington 1976). Some beer was drunk, including “Roger’s best Virginia ale,” brewed in Williamsburg (Hume 1970). But English beer yeasts spoiled in the American summer heat, and winter killed them, making beer brewing a difficult proposition (Rorabaugh 1979). Although Virginians also made cider and some wines in the colonial period, distilled spirits kept the best (Hume 1970).
Some of the gentry were voracious consumers of alcohol. When the governor of Virginia, Lord Nor-borne Berkeley Botetourt, died in 1770, he left behind more than 2,000 bottles of wine, brandy, and ale and many kegs of spirits (Hume 1970). Three years later, his successor, Lord John Murray Dunmore, ordered 15 dozen bottles of both ale and strong beer from England, as well as wine glasses, cloves, and 20 dozen packs of cards (Smallzreid 1956).
Wine, tea, coffee, and the spicy dishes of the early modern period figured prominently as the kitchens of the planters began to turn out the first high cuisine in British America (Fischer 1989). Much of this has been attributed to African cooks, who knew how to use flavorings and spices. Most plantations maintained kitchens in buildings separated from the main house (because of a fear of fire), as well as icehouses (where winter ice was stored in layers of straw), barns for grain and animals, springhouses (for storage of dairy products in cold water), and smokehouses (for preserving meat, such as the famous Virginia hams, by smoking).
Plantation dinners could be elaborate, multicourse affairs with abundant meats, hot breads, seasonal vegetables and fruits, and large amounts of alcohol. At Westover Plantation on the James River, blue-winged teal (duck), venison, asparagus, and garden peas were common on William Byrd’s table (Fischer 1989). Other favorite dishes were “spoonbread” (a maize casserole), ham cooked in any of a dozen ways, oysters (“cooked any way”), fried chicken, fricassee of chicken, lamb, game, pies filled with meat or fowl, and the region’s own peanut soup and peanut pie.
Foods in the South were preserved by drying, salting, and smoking, and although English cookbooks had long advised preserving fruits in brandy, this was a costly treat, available only for the rich. In general, for most in colonial Virginia, winter meant monotonous meals of cornbread, beans, and ham; variety in off-season meals had to await canning, which came with the Industrial Revolution.
English colonization spread farther south in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In 1670, settlers and slaves from the crowded sugar island of Barbados had landed on the coast named “Carolana” for Charles I, with its capital city of Charleston, named for Charles II. By the early eighteenth century, Carolina was thriving, its semitropical economy based on the growing of indigo, hemp, sugar, and rice. The whites of Charleston drank beer and whiskey, both made from maize, and ate corn-bread, but they also became – in that time, at least – the only society of English-speaking people to eat rice as a dietary staple (Rutledge 1979). They retained wheat for bread making, but meals were centered on rice, which even today is more prominent on Charleston tables than on many others in America.
Slaves, some of whom had known rice in Africa, provided much of the knowledge for planting, harvesting, and cooking it, although some innovations, such as the use of tidal flows to drive water into the rice paddies, were conceived by the whites (Dethloff 1988). Rice was generally prepared in the “Indian” or “African” manner, in which boiling was followed by steaming. Among the favorite rice dishes were “pilau,” made with pork, “hoppin’ John,” made with black-eyed peas and ham hocks, and breads made with rice and wheat flour (Hess 1992). This rice-eating plantation society spread to coastal Georgia, and in both colonies, the isolation of African slaves on rice-growing sea islands led to the distinctive culture, language, and cookery of the African-American “Gullahs.”Abundant seafood, rice, maize meal, and hot peppers were combined in such Gullah dishes as “down’ya stew” and shrimp-and-grits (Junior League of Charleston 1950).
Harriott Pinckney Horry, daughter of a prominent South Carolina Huguenot family, left a recipe book written at the end of the eighteenth century that provides some insight into the local cuisine. Her “journey cake” was made from either rice or maize; she also cooked with tomatoes, fresh ginger, and chilli peppers (Horry 1984). Clearly, her kitchen was the scene of good, and sometimes spicy, cooking.
Canada and American Independence
To the north, there was another society as different from Massachusetts as Massachusetts was from Virginia. In Quebec and Acadia, settlers from Normandy brought with them ways of cooking and bread making that persisted into the twentieth century. The center of their diets was the pain de campagne, or “bread of the countryside,” made from a mixture of grains and baked in a wood-fired oven of clay or brick (Nightingale 1971). This bread – made in large loaves, four pounds being usual – was also the common bread of France during this period (so-called French bread was not made until the nineteenth century) (Boily-Blanchette 1979). Such dishes as meat pie (spiced with cinnamon or cloves) and yellow pea soup still survive in Quebec and Acadia (Gotlieb 1972).
Local ingredients modified the French-derived cookery of Quebec. Maple syrup found its way into everything from meat glazes to dessert pies, sometimes with disconcerting results, and hams were boiled in maple sap at sugar-making time (Benoäit 1970; Gotlieb 1972). The famous Oka cheese (similar to cheddar) also originated in this era (Gotlieb 1972), and American chillies were used to season pickled onions (Benoäit 1970).
British Canada’s cooking was English in derivation, and plain dishes, such as boiled mutton and calf’s head, as well as sweet custards, were common (Nightingale 1971). As in Massachusetts, entire meals were boiled in one iron pot; bacon, cod, and eggs, cooked together with potatoes and turnips, was one such sturdy meal (Nightingale 1971). Boiled “bag puddings,” made with flour, eggs, and fruit, were often served for dessert (Benoäit 1970). As with other European colonies in North America, there was an abundance of foods. Oats grew well in Canada and went into oatmeal and bread; there were even “pilafs” made from oat groats instead of rice. “Grits” (Martha Wash-ington’s “greats”) meant oat groats instead of corn, although “corn cake” did grace some Canadian tables (Benoäit 1970).
On the coast, oysters were a poor man’s dish, and lobsters were so common as to be practically valueless, making people ashamed to eat them (Gotlieb 1972). Clams and cod went into pies, which in Canada were as popular as in New (and old) England (Benoäit 1970). Salt pork was so universal that it was even used in sweet cakes (Nightingale 1971). To accompany these dishes, Canadians made a variety of “wines” from all sorts of foodstuffs. Their “port wine,” for example, was a concoction of whole wheat, currants, raisins, and potatoes that contained no grape juice. “Parsnip wine” and “beet wine” were other drinkables (Nightingale 1971). These country wines, like rum, owed their fermentation to sugar that Maritime settlers obtained from the sugar islands. Rum is still a preferred beverage in New Brunswick, where a “black rum” unknown in the United States is a favorite (Personal communication from Charles Morrisey 1996).
Canada and the colonies to the south were to be separated politically as well as in culinary matters. The American Revolution led to significant changes both on and off the table. American corn whiskey became more popular than rum, and it has been claimed that many drank coffee instead of tea as a show of loyalty to the new republic. But although tea was no longer available through British channels (as it had been before the Revolution), American traders began to obtain it directly from China. The switch from tea to coffee began in the early nineteenth century as Brazil began shipping more coffee to North America. This dramatically reduced prices and thus encouraged more widespread use of the beverage (Cummings 1940).
The Revolution affected the cooking of Canada, as thousands of loyalists fled the thirteen colonies to settle there. Some refugees from Virginia baked corn-bread on the hearth or in a skillet (Nightingale 1971), although their “johnnycake” became decidedly Canadian with the addition of maple syrup. Fried chicken and “spoonbread,” suggestive of a southern influence, were also enjoyed in Canada, and the chicken curry that came north was, as in South Carolina, called “country captain” and attributed to sea trade with India (to conform to local tastes, the Nova Scotian version of the dish called for only a single teaspoon of curry powder for a four-pound chicken) (Nightingale 1971).Yankee influence, in the form of Boston baked beans, was apparent in Nova Scotia as well (Benoäit 1970). Tea remained the preferred hot beverage, and teahouses were opened there as well as in other regions of Canada.
A Canadian cookbook of this period dealt apologetically with chilli peppers because they were a part of recipes from “Old Country people” and “Western dishes” for “a man’s world” (Benoäit 1970: 86, 175, 182). On the other hand,”green tomato chow,” a version of “chowchow” (a relish common in the American South), contained red peppers, and its apples and cucumbers link it, like chowchow, with the mixed fruit-and-vegetable pickles of medieval England (Benoäit 1970). Perhaps Canada’s most eccentric contribution to American cooking resulted from the resettlement of the Acadians, or Cajuns, in Louisiana. These exiled French-Canadians adopted the hot spices, rice, and seafoods of their new home and created a cuisine unlike any other (Root and de Rochemont 1976).
Cookbooks and Cooking
The first cookbook published in America was E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, a 1742 reprint of a 1727 British volume (Smallzreid 1956). Other English cookbooks, such as Hannah Glasse’ The Art of Cookery, were also printed in America but reached few readers in a land where many were illiterate and any kind of book ownership was rare. In 1796, Amelia Simmons, styling herself “an American orphan,” published American Cookery in Hartford, Connecticut (1965). It was the first cookbook to include recipes employing such American staples as maize and pumpkins. For “johnnycake” or “hoecake” (the first recipe for cornbread in English), she instructed the reader to “scald 1 pint of milk and put to 3 pints of indian meal, and half pint of flour – bake before the fire” (Simmons 1965: 57). The author also included numerous recipes for vegetables and mentioned five kinds of cabbage and nine different beans. Kitchen gardens were apparently common in her world, as she supplied information on how to plant and harvest.
Simmons’s book indicates how tastes had changed in Anglo-America since colonial times (for one thing, spicy dishes were no longer in favor) and also reveals several continuing trends in the food history of North America. First, there was still the immense abundance of food available that has already been noted. Second, cookery retained its English character, with minimal seasoning and meat as the center of the meal. Third, the authorities on cookery were not (as, for example, in France) a restaurant-trained elite but rather housewives and home cooks. Although Simmons herself was careful about cooking, the attention to quality of ingredients and cooking methods that later distinguished the grande cuisine of France were, on the whole, lacking in American cooking. It was apparent that, in cooking, America had inherited both the good and the bad from England.
The Nineteenth Century
During the nineteenth century, Native American populations continued to decline as European, African, and some Asian peoples filled the North American continent. Wild game, although still common, had been hunted to the point that several species, such as the passenger pigeon, beame as extinct as some of the Indian peoples who had once preyed on them (Root and de Rochemont 1976).
Three nineteenth-century trends combined to revolutionize the American diet. One was immigration, involving a mass of Europeans, as well as the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in the west of the continent. The second (which created the first) was the Industrial Revolution. The third (made both possible and necessary by the first two) was the use of industrial technology to provide the growing population of European-Americans with a quantity and variety of foods undreamed of in previous ages. The quality of that food, however, was – and remains – questionable.
Regional Foodways of America
The North and urban squalor
Urban workers seldom enjoyed well-balanced meals. Americans who had migrated from rural regions crowded together with immigrants in the “slum” areas of northern cities, where fresh foods were largely unavailable, and hunting, fishing, and gardening were difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, as a rule, the diet of urban workers was inadequate in all but calories; fresh vegetables and fruit were almost absent from their tables, save for a few weeks in the summer and fall. Throughout the United States, the favorite vegetables were potatoes and cabbage, and the favorite fruit remained apples in their hundreds of local varieties (Levenstein 1988).
Southern and African-American foodways
The nineteenth century’s antebellum epoch brought with it increasing polarization between North and South. As the nation lurched toward the Civil War, northern religious reformers and abolitionists attacked the institution of slavery, while southerners from the Chesapeake region, the “Rice Coast,” the back country, and the western states of the newer South defended it. These disparate regions of the South became united, first by the slaveholding ideology, and then by the Confederate “Cause.”
Southern cooking at this time was still marked by a preponderance of locally produced staples, such as maize, salt pork, and garden greens. Beef was little known and fresh milk almost nonexistent (Hilliard 1988). Whether or not the diet of black slaves was adequate has long been debated, but one conclusion is that although adequate in calories, it lacked sufficient protein and vitamins. Protein-calorie malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies are attested to by contemporary evidence (Kiple and King 1981). Some slaves kept garden plots or animals – a source of economic independence – but although a few could hunt or fish, most relied almost solely on rations. These provided a relatively monotonous diet of salt pork, maize meal, and, sometimes, molasses or sweet potatoes, although most slaves were given vegetables in season (Hilliard 1988).The use of fatty rather than lean pork for slaves was justified by the conviction that fat provided the energy needed for hard labor. The slaves’ diet was the basis for modern “soul food.”
For the planter class, excess was frequently the rule. One of the most astounding of many extravagant dishes was the “Carolina wedding cake” made in 1850, which called for, among other things, 20 pounds each of butter, sugar, flour, and raisins, as well as 20 nutmegs and 20 glasses of brandy (Junior League of Charleston 1950). One author has estimated that it would have required 1,500 eggs and weighed a total of 900 pounds (Smallzreid 1956). Similar excesses were evident among cooks who deep-fried entire turkeys and garnished tables with great bowls of turtle steaks, merely to whet appetites (Hilliard 1988). One dinner on record featured ham, turkey, chicken, duck, corned beef, fish, sweet potatoes, “Irish” potatoes, cabbage, rice, beets, 8 pies, syllabub, jelly, “floating islands,” and preserves (Rutledge 1979). Peach brandy and corn whiskey washed all of this down.
Virginians were as proud as South Carolinians of their reputation for gracious living. Tomatoes figured prominently in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House Wife, originally published in 1828 but actually based on plantation cookery from the colonial era. Randolph, a relative of Thomas Jefferson, presented such recipes as hot-pepper vinegar, buttered okra, and stewed tomatoes, along with plenty of others for pork dishes and cornbread. Other writers, such as Letitia Burwell (1895), reveled in the colonial and antebellum past with exuberant nostalgia. Among her memories was afternoon tea with Robert E. Lee, who displayed the Custis silver of Mount Vernon at his table amid a truly English array of cakes and pastries. But such fondly recalled luxuries were not typical of Southern living, with its sharp polarization of the culture by class and race, at the table as well as in church and home.
Emancipation from slavery brought no freedom from a restricted diet, and after the Civil War, the poor – both black and white – lived on a regimen of corn-bread, beans, grits, biscuits, and salt pork. Cornbread predominated over wheat bread even among those who could afford the latter: Southerners had come to prefer its distinctive taste (Hilliard 1988). The poorest chewed dirt, apparently to relieve the symptoms of hookworms, and frequently suffered from pellagra. This nutritional deficiency disease was the result of a diet lacking in niacin (one of the B vitamins) and progressed from diarrhea and dermatitis to dementia and death. Ingestion of any niacin source, such as fresh meat, was the cure (Cummings 1940). Poverty shaped the diet of the South in other ways. The poor used sorghum syrup to sweeten their coffee, pastries, and cornbread (because store-bought sugar was too expensive), and sorghum, an African plant, is still grown in the South to provide a flavorful sweetener (Cummings 1940). Similarly, the southern poor used cayenne (Capsicum annuum), which could be homegrown, instead of store-bought black pepper (Hess 1992).
The West and Hispanic foods
The foods of the Southwest added still another culinary experience for the American palate. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States expanded, by conquest and by land purchase, into this large area with its predominantly Hispanic population. The region’s culinary heritage was rooted in part in the chilli-laced tamales and tortillas of the Aztecs and their predecessors and in part in the culture of Iberia. Shipments of olive oil, hams, wine, and even saffron arrived regularly from Spain (Linsenmeyer 1976).The last Spanish governor of California was inaugurated in 1816 with a gala affair featuring poultry, game birds, cordials, wine, fresh fruit, breads, and cakes (Linsen-meyer 1976). Salmon, crab, and pork were cheap in this new land, and the vines left by the Spanish friars formed part of the foundation for today’s California wine industry (Lichine et al. 1982).
Cultures and foodways blended as time passed. A Texas landowner took stock of his garden in 1839. The fruits alone comprised peach, fig, raspberry, quince, plum,”sour orange,” melon, pomegranate, and strawberry; in addition, there were 13 herbs and 22 kinds of vegetables (Tucker 1993).That he grew such Spanish favorites as quince and chilli peppers is worth noting, and clearly a blending of cultures took place at his table. By contrast, the early Anglo settlers of Arizona stuck to such familiar favorites as roast beef, sourdough bread, and rhubarb pie (DeWitt and Gerlach 1990).
Also in the nineteenth century, a spicy stew of meat, beans, and chillies received its name, chile con carne. In 1828, a writer mentioned it as the staple of the poor, and although no recipe was given, it is clear that the dish was prepared with ingredients similar to those that go into it today. Linked to cowboys (for whom beef and beans were staples), to Mexico (where similar dishes had been served for some time), and to the “chili queens” who served it from market stalls, chile soon became a regional favorite (DeWitt and Gerlach 1990). By 1896, an Army cookbook included “Spanish” recipes that were actually Mexican, such as tamales, tortillas, chiles rellenos, and refried beans with cheese (Levenstein 1988).
Before the Civil War, white settlers had moved into Oregon and Washington, where they found a potential culinary paradise. The Indians of the area had scorned agriculture because game and fish were so abundant. The salmon, abalone, and wild berries of the Northwest were supplemented by the white settlers with grain, meat animals, and fruit trees, all of which prospered in that climate (Root and de Rochemont 1976).
The slaughter of the American bison (and of the Indians who depended on them) opened the Great Plains to white settlement. The artifact that increased the area’s attractiveness was the steel plow, which enabled farmers to turn the tough sod of the plains and, thus, to grow wheat, with the result that wheat bread became available throughout the entire country (Root and de Rochemont 1976). A staple of these plains pioneers and others was sourdough bread, leavened by a yeast starter that was kept active by periodic feedings of water and flour. Known from California to the Canadian wilderness, it formed the basis of loaves of bread, pancakes, and even sweet desserts, and “sourdough” became the nickname of inhabitants of Alaska (Gotlieb 1972).
Pioneers also ate all kinds of game. Imaginative cooks made such dishes as stuffed moose heart and smoked gopher; others improvised French-style soups with fish from Canadian lakes (Gotlieb 1972). German and Czech pioneers brought one-pot casseroles to the region. A favorite on the trail was dried-apple pie: A cook rolled the crust out on the wagon seat, reconstituted the dried fruit by soaking, and had a pie ready to bake in the Dutch oven at day’s end (Tannahill 1988).
No such treats characterized the foodways of the rapidly disappearing Indian population. Equipped with guns and horses, the Plains tribes had hunted the buffalo, using every part of it for food, implements, and shelter. But the wars against the whites ended with the natives confined on reservations and dependent for food on government handouts. Ruth Little Bear of the Blackfoot tribe recalled her grand-mother’s tales of food in a previous time, when buffalo tripe was stuffed with tenderloin, and neither spices nor utensils were used. She also provided recipes for fried bread, yeasted bread, and “bannock,” the Scottish name for pan-baked bread, a staple among Indians subsisting on government-issued salt pork, flour, and rice (Hungry Wolf 1982). Other Indian dishes, dating from a time before the reservations, included a soup made from berries,”prairie turnip” (a wild root gathered by the tribes), and many kinds of smoked and boiled meat (Laubin and Laubin 1957).
With the advent of steamships, the second half of the nineteenth century became a period when, for the first time, large numbers of non-English-speaking peoples poured into the United States to challenge the cultural dominance of the Anglo-Saxon “Old Americans.” Of these, perhaps the most prominent in bringing new tastes were the Italians and the Chinese. Although immigrants from other areas also contributed ethnic dishes to the American repertoire, the Italians and Chinese founded the first “ethnic restaurants” and brought in new foods that Americans accepted, albeit after some initial misgivings.
Irish settlers, fleeing the potato famine of the late 1840s, comprised the first wave of nineteenth-century immigrants. Like the English, the Irish had little tradition of refined cuisine, and those who were immigrants to hardscrabble Newfoundland continued to make such peasant dishes as “colcannon,” a mixture of mashed potatoes, kale, and butter (Gotlieb 1972). In New York, Irish immigrants relied on bread, fried meats, pastries, and tea (Shapiro 1986). The Irish also brought Catholicism, with its insistence on Lenten fasts and meatless Fridays. However, despite their centuries-long experience in brewing and distilling, the Irish had little influence on American alcoholic beverages. American beer takes after German beer, and American whiskey was a unique maize product unknown in the British Isles until relatively recently.
Italians arrived toward the end of the century. Their traditions of cuisine, which stretch far back into history, were sophisticated, shaped in part by the variety of foods in sunny Italy and in part by the chronic scarcity in that country of fuel for fires, meaning that quickly cooked foods were cheaper to prepare. Their many contributions to American cuisine include pasta, olive oil, the versatile tomato, and wine. It is the case that as early as the time of Jefferson, some Americans were growing tomatoes and cooking pasta; indeed, Jefferson bought a pasta-making machine in Italy. But it was in the late nineteenth century that Italian immigrants inundated the Northeast, bringing with them a desire for fresh vegetables (especially tomatoes) and other staples of their Mediterranean homeland. During the depression of the early 1890s, the city of Detroit offered gardeners the use of vacant lots, and by 1896, this practice had spread to some 20 other cities, including New York. Reporters remarked on the lavish plots of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant grown by Italians (Tucker 1993).
Immigration from Eastern Europe brought large numbers of Poles and Jews to America. Their culinary contributions included the dark rye breads of their homelands and the complex kosher dishes that were the stock-in-trade of the original Jewish delicatessens. Highly seasoned cold meats made the prohibition of cooking on the Sabbath more tolerable, and still do, although today such delicatessens, which are everywhere, are frequented by Jews and Gentiles alike.
The Jewish dietary laws that were cherished in the Old World, however, were frequently disregarded in the New. Jewish writers, such as Harry Golden (1958), have commented wryly that Chinese dishes, which nearly always included pork, were simply too much of a temptation for Jewish people. In fact, the Reform denomination of Jews set aside kosher dietary laws.
Other Eastern Europeans also came to America, in many cases settling in ethnic enclaves within large cities. Food festivals and church events helped to preserve the customs and dishes of such lands as Serbia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.
Far more exotic to Americans than the Eastern Europeans were the Chinese immigrants. The first Chinese came to America around 1820, and significant numbers followed during the California gold rush. Mostly Cantonese, they grew Asian vegetables in their garden plots and introduced stir-frying, the use of new seasonings, and above all, the Chinese restaurant (Linsenmeyer 1976; Tucker 1993). Preserved ginger, Chinese oranges, dried seafoods, and bean curd were imported, and each immigrant was allowed to carry in two jars of ginger for personal use (Linsenmeyer 1976). Shipping records show imports of foodstuffs as mundane as rice and as exotic as sharks’ fins (Linsenmeyer 1976). Because of the southern Chinese origin of these immigrants, however, they did not bring with them the potted dishes and wheat breads of northern China, which remained unknown in America for another century and a half (Tropp 1982).
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, virtually no restaurants existed outside of the eastern cities with their grand hotels, although, of course, inns and taverns offered food (Root and de Rochemont 1976). But soon the excellent fare and low prices of Chinese restaurants made them a success despite an American apprehensiveness born of rumors that accused the Chinese of eating cats and dogs. Such “Chinese” dishes as “chop suey” and “chow mein” were actually invented in America and became American favorites; chop suey even made its way along with the Canadian Pacific railroad into the depths of that northern land (Smallzreid 1956; Benoäit 1970).
The most famous restaurant in the Northeast was Delmonico’s in New York; first opened in 1825, it offered a menu and cooking style that were largely French, with some American concessions, such as “hamburger steak” (Pillsbury 1990). Eleven restaurants and three generations later, Prohibition caused the last Delmonico’s to close in 1923 (Root and de Rochemont 1976), having served every president of the United States from 1825 to 1900; other clientele had ranged from Mark Twain to the Prince of Wales.
Toward the end of the century, Italians had also begun opening restaurants, and these joined other restaurants and saloons as welcome additions to the urban landscape of industrial America. In addition, industry and capitalism brought forth the first national chain restaurant, the Harvey House, founded in 1876 (Pillsbury 1990), which served standardized fare in locations along railway lines.
Food and Technology in the Nineteenth Century
The Industrial Revolution, which introduced mechanical power to produce consumer goods in quantity, brought widespread dietary changes, not least among them the advent of processed foods. By 1876, America was exporting yearly to Britain a million pounds of margarine, or “butterine,” made from waste animal fat (Tannahill 1988).”Crisco,” a mixture of fats, became a popular product that freed the housewife from having to render or strain hot grease, and powdered gelatin eliminated the labor of boiling calves’ feet (Nightingale 1971). Roller mills manufactured white flour, which – despite its cheapness – kept longer, made loaves that rose higher, and was easier to digest than brown flour (Tannahill 1988). In addition, it made much better sauces and pastries.
The Industrial Revolution also ushered new technology into the kitchen. The cast-iron stove meant that women no longer needed open fires for cooking, and the age-old risk of serious burns or even death for women who cooked at open hearths began to disappear (Smallzreid 1956). Refrigerated railcars and ships made fresh foods available far from their points of origin, and canning enabled the storage of large amounts of these and other foods for consumption out of season.
Fruits and vegetables had been preserved since Roman times by pickling or cooking with honey. With the 1809 development in France of “bottled” foods, and the later invention of the screw-top Mason and Ball jars in 1858, home “canning” became reliable and safe, and factory canning a multimillion-dollar industry (Root and de Rochemont 1976).The first tin cans were handmade, but the invention in 1849 of a machine that could produce them meant substantially lower prices for the food that they contained. The invention came just in time for the California gold rush, and by 1850 the miners were already eating large amounts of canned fish, shellfish, tomatoes, and peas (Root and de Rochemont 1976).The most significant food to be canned was milk, a process pioneered by Gail Borden and patented in 1856. His firm supplied large amounts of sugared, canned milk and juice to the Union army during the Civil War (Cummings 1940) and was still in business, although struggling, at the end of the twentieth century.
Recipe books provided instructions on canning for American housewives, who might each put up hundreds of jars of preserves each year, in addition to numerous crocks of pickles, relishes, “piccalilli,” homemade catsup, and sauerkraut (Smallzreid 1956). Vegetables from the home garden and fruit from nearby orchards and farmers’ markets were combined with spices in family recipes, and women often worked together to can as much as possible while a fruit or vegetable was in season.
Another method of keeping food was the icebox whose invention seems to have taken place in Maryland at the beginning of the nineteenth century – the broiling summers there doubtless the “mother” of this invention. But the ice had to be changed frequently, which would ultimately be remedied by home refrigeration. The discovery of the vapor-refrigeration principle and the invention of various compression machines were initial steps in this direction, and by the end of the Civil War, ice-making machines existed. By 1880 some 3,000 patents had addressed the topic of refrigeration – and some of these in turn led to a revolution in the meat industry.
The dominance of pork began to wane – even in the South – as southwestern cattle drives and the Chicago stockyards made available an enormous amount of beef (Levenstein 1993). Industrial workers’ families, who had eaten only small amounts of fresh meat in the 1830s, consumed two pounds daily in 1851, and fresh meat was much more nutritious than the salted and preserved meats of colonial days. Milk consumption doubled, and the use of vegetables increased greatly (Cummings 1940).
Chicago’s stockyards were modernized in the 1860s, and by 1875, manufacturers such as Swift and Armour, boasting of the cleanliness of their production facilities, had established their brands as leaders in the meat-packing industry, positions they still hold. In the 1870s and 1880s, railcars and ships, now equipped with refrigerators, carried meat to all parts of America (Root and de Rochemont 1976), and as Kathleen Ann Smallzreid (1956: 103) has noted, “refrigeration probably did more to change the flavor of the American meal than any other invention, and in doing so brought health as well as enjoyment to the table.”
The newly mechanized stockyards used all parts of the animals they processed, including bone for china and glycerin for explosives (Smallzreid 1956). Unfortunately, federal inspection was negligible in the era of “robber barons”; sanitation was nonexistent, and by the turn of the century, conditions in Chicago meat-packing plants were horrific. When, in 1906, socialist writer Upton Sinclair published his eyewitness account of this situation, entitled The Jungle, the public was outraged. Meat sales dropped by half as people read of diseased animals, dirt, and excrement – as well as human body parts severed in accidents – being canned and sold along with the meat (Sinclair 1984). In reaction, President Theodore Roosevelt urged passage of the country’s first Pure Food and Drug Law, mandating (among other things) inspection of meats sold in interstate commerce (Root and de Rochemont 1976). Despite this action, however, even as late as the 1970s, such foods as chicken pie were still being made under conditions considerably less than sanitary.
In addition to meat, trains carried fresh vegetables and fruits. Navel oranges from Bahia, Brazil, were planted in Florida in 1870 and in California in 1873. In 1887, California shipped 2,212 railcar loads of citrus fruit, mostly navel oranges. Five years later, that number had swollen to 5,871 carloads of oranges and 65 of lemons (Smallzreid 1956). Grapefruits were popular as well; in 1889, Florida shipped 400 tons of them. Bananas from Costa Rica were already arriving in quantity when in 1899 the United Fruit Company was founded. Thus began a monopoly of banana production in Central America and the Caribbean as well as a monopoly of distribution in the United States that would last throughout most of the twentieth century (Smallzreid 1956).
Sales of sugar doubled between 1880 and 1915 (Cummings 1940), and new sweets began to appear. Chocolate, once known to the Aztecs as a bitter spice and to the Spaniards as a beverage, was first made into candy in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1876,”milk chocolate” was invented (Root and de Rochemont 1976). Cake making became easier – a result of improved baking powder – and ice cream, a rare treat before the invention of refrigeration, became available to all (Cummings 1940; Smallz-reid 1956). In Canada, however, many rural areas saw almost no store-bought candy; even in the 1870s, candy was still made at home from maple syrup (Nightingale 1971).
The purchase of staples at stores was more typical as the century passed. The “New Woman” of the late nineteenth century was ready to give thought and action to such problems as women’s rights, suffrage, and education because many household tasks had been eliminated. (It has recently been argued that mechanization increased housewives’ workloads, but anyone who has cleaned clothes using lye soap and a boiler, or cooked a four-course meal over an open hearth, may appreciate why so many felt the immense appeal of the new technology.) As a rule, women no longer made soap, pickles, cheese, and cloth; nor grew vegetables, fruits, and medicinal herbs; nor butchered nor made beer at home (Smallzreid 1956).
Until the 1890s, the main meal (“dinner”) was still eaten at noon, as it continued to be in much of rural America well into the twentieth century (Plante 1995). Typical meals in the late nineteenth-century Northeast might include a breakfast of corn muffins, fried potatoes, and fish, and a dinner might begin with macaroni soup and move on to duck salmi, baked potatoes, oyster salad, canned peas, and celery sauce, finishing with pumpkin pie. Supper, much lighter, could be muffins, dried beef, tea rusks, and baked apples (Smallzreid 1956).
Drinking in the Nineteenth Century
Drinking also changed drastically in the nineteenth century. The massive consumption of hard liquor in the early years peaked around 1840 at perhaps five gallons of alcohol annually per adult (Rorabaugh 1979). It subsequently declined for two reasons. The first was the rise of the American beer industry. German immigrants brought with them the knowledge of brewing lager, a much lighter beer than had previously been available to Americans, and the end result was the German-American beer of the twentieth century. The second reason had to do with the temperance movement. Its advocates railed against “Demon Rum” and urged its replacement by tea, coffee, or pure water (available for the first time in American cities).
Until the last decades of the century, coffee was usually made in the old way, by roasting beans over a fire or on the stove and grinding them at home; eggs and salt were used to get the coffee to settle (Small-zreid 1956). Inventors, however, had turned their attention to the improvement of coffee processing, and, in 1880, Joel Cheek of the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company developed a coffee roaster that allowed less flavor to escape during the roasting process. He marketed the coffee produced by this new method through his company’s stores, naming the brand after the Maxwell House hotel in Nashville, where it was first served (Smallzreid 1956).
Ladies still met in the afternoon for tea, but this practice had nowhere near the popularity that it possessed in Canada and Australia, which had retained ties of tea and government with Great Britain. As late as 1834 in New York, tea (and coffee) was served in bowls as well as in cups, and into the twentieth century, some tea and coffee drinkers kept to the Chinese practice of pouring their drink from the cup into the saucer, from which they could sip it as it cooled (Pillsbury 1990).
Health, Nutrition, and Food Fads
The increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables as well as meat and dairy products meant significant changes in the health of Americans. By the 1860s, life expectancy had lengthened, and Union soldiers during the Civil War (1861 to 1865) were, on the average, a half inch taller than soldiers had been in the period from 1839 to 1855 (Cummings 1940).Some researchers have claimed that average American stature subsequently decreased with the immigration of shorter peoples from southern and eastern Europe. In the 1880s, however, clothiers had to work from a scale of sizes larger than that previously in use, and a modern corsetière lamented that patterns from the nineteenth century were useless in the twentieth, indicating further increases in height and changes in body shape.
That nutritional improvements were taking place in America is borne out by the fact that health and stature did continue to increase as the turn of the twentieth century approached and passed. Harvard undergraduates in 1926, for example, were an inch taller than their fathers had been; the women of Vassar and Mount Holyoke were more than an inch taller than their mothers, and the width of their hips had decreased. In the same year, Boston schoolboys were three inches taller than boys of 1876 (Cummings 1940). Increasingly larger sizes of clothing at the end of the twentieth century suggested that, for better or for worse, Americans are continuing to get larger.
To return to the trend of the nineteenth century, however, it would seem that the presumed deleterious effects of using canned food, white flour, and too much sugar were more than offset by the abundance of fresh foods that Americans ate (Cummings 1940). Moreover, nutritional health was improving not only in spite of the increase in industrial food processing but also in the face of a number of faddish nutritional theories that, despite their shortcomings, enjoyed wide popularity.
The nineteenth century saw some strange food practices, with “Grahamism” perhaps the best-known example. Sylvester Graham combined a romantic admiration for “nature” with a fear of processed foods – especially roller-milled, white, bread flour – and preached that poor health could be remedied by regular bathing, drinking water instead of alcoholic beverages, exercise, vegetarianism, and avoidance of sexual activity.
Indeed, Graham took vegetarianism to a new extreme by rejecting sugar, mustard, catsup, pepper, and white bread, as well as meat (Root and de Rochemont 1976), and along with others of his ilk, he imagined that the classical Greeks and Romans had also been vegetarian, or at least partly so (Green 1986). “Grahamists” ate whole-wheat bread, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and “Graham crackers,” made with whole-wheat flour and molasses and invented by Graham, who claimed that such a diet would prevent illness and insanity and lessen sexual desire. Graham made many converts – despite hostility from butchers and bakers – and special boardinghouses opened to provide the food he recommended. Called “the prophet of brown bread and pumpkins,” he counted among his disciples Sojourner Truth, Horace Greeley, and the entire sect of Shakers, who were vegetarians for about 10 years (Green 1986), although their rules later permitted some meat consumption.
Other nutritional theorists also linked religion, sex, and food. Mrs. Horace Mann, author in 1861 of a stern work on food and righteousness entitled Christianity in the Kitchen, argued that rich concoctions, such as wedding cake, suet-laced plum pudding, and thick turtle soup, were masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table, and that “there is no more common cause of bad morals than abuses of diet”(Shapiro 1986:130; Tannahill 1988).
Another reformer, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe), feared processed flour as much as Graham did. Beecher argued that “the staff of life … has become a weak crutch,” and his daughters held that store-bought white bread was “so much cotton-wool” (Root and de Rochemont 1976: 22).
New “health foods” were another legacy of Grahamism, with cold breakfast cereal the most prominent. The Seventh Day Adventists, members of a church founded in 1863, held that meat, spices, tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol were both unhealthy and immoral and that “foods of vegetable origin” paved the way to salvation and to “God-given health and happiness” (Smallzreid 1956: 150; Root and de Rochemont 1976). They therefore began to manufacture healthy and “moral” foods in Battle Creek, Michigan, where, in 1876, Dr. John H. Kellogg invented breakfast flakes made from wheat. C.W. Post, a client, joined the quest for “moral” foods. He began to sell “Postum” (a coffee substitute) in 1895 and “Grape Nuts” cereal in 1898 (Smallzreid 1956). “Shredded Wheat,” another health-food favorite, was invented in 1891 by Henry Perkey, a non-Adventist entrepreneur (Smallzreid 1956). In all cases, commercial versions of these products, which incorporated a great deal of sugar, bore little resemblance to the ascetic foods envisioned by their inventors.
An even stranger fad than Grahamism was “mastication,” the brainchild of Horace Fletcher. Fletcher believed that a “filtering organ” in the back of the mouth performed most digestion and that an inordinate amount of chewing was necessary to stimulate it. Chewing each bite of food 32 times was recommended, and college students were recruited to practice it. But because excessive chewing interfered with the pleasure of eating, the mastication theory was soon abandoned (Levenstein 1988).
A more important influence on American foodways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that of “domestic science.” Beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of women learned about cooking through classes centered on the application of science to the kitchen. Such women as Catherine Beecher, author of a book on “frugal housewifery,” urged women to take control of the household economy in order to save money on food and other expenses (Shapiro 1986). But although the ideas that they learned (such as balancing protein and carbohydrates so as to provide nutritious and inexpensive meals) were good ones, the results of their application were not necessarily so. Breakfasts of fruit, stewed corn, baked potatoes, and hot water won approval, whereas hot bread and griddlecakes were abhorred (Shapiro 1986).”Manly” meals of beans, potatoes, and beef alternated with “ladies’ luncheons” of salads, marshmallows stuffed with raisins, and “Dainty Desserts for Dainty People,” which allegedly appealed to “delicate” feminine tastes (Shapiro 1986: 99).
Another product of the period’s obsession with “science” was the work of Fannie Farmer. A teacher at the Boston Cooking School, she originated the concept of “level measurement,” which was probably the first challenge in all of history to the slapdash practice of using a pinch of this and a smidgen of that. Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book incorporated cooking-school methods and level measures in the belief that anyone who read it could learn to cook. Every cookbook that gives exact measurements is a tribute to the tremendous impact of this woman (Farmer 1896). The use of cookbooks and level measurements and the influence of cooking schools and nutritional theories would come to predominate in American kitchens of the twentieth century.
The Twentieth Century
The twentieth century saw far-reaching changes in the foodways of America. The development of hybrid maize and other crops, the application of high technology to food processing and cooking, and the growth of such commercial interests as fast-food restaurant chains and supermarkets all contributed to these changes.
Although most Americans entered the century with their near-Puritanical distaste for “fancy cooking” well intact, this attitude coexisted alongside the allure of the exotic. “Theme restaurants,” looking like Arabian tents or Southern mansions, arose to serve the same steak and lobster as more mundane establishments. The most popular place for lunch in the early twentieth century – as before – was the saloon, with its free food for customers who purchased alcoholic beverages.
The early part of the twentieth century saw a continuation of the gorging of the previous century. In 1913, a New York dinner hosted by Frank Woolworth (founder of the “five-and-ten” store chain) featured caviar, oysters, turtle soup, pompano with potatoes, guinea hen, terrapin, punch, squab, grapefruit-walnut salad, ice cream, cake, coffee, and wine (Levenstein 1988). But change was in the air, occasioned by an ever-growing interest in home economics and nutrition and an awareness of the lighter meals served in other parts of the world.
The diets of ordinary people were improved, as more and more could afford to take advantage of new technologies, such as refrigeration and canning. Certainly there was a greater abundance of vegetables consumed, as farmers’ markets made them readily available during the season; preservation and storage for consumption later in the year had also become easier. Thus, in the early part of the century, steel-workers in Pennsylvania, for example, ate typical American suppers of meat, beans, potatoes, fruit, beets, and pickles. Other meals served by their wives included spinach, tomatoes, and eggplant (Levenstein 1988). Towns famous for particular fruits or vegetables began to hold festivals to celebrate their abundance of such crops as artichokes, or apples, or pumpkins, or pecans, or garlic (Levenstein 1993).
Like their eastern counterparts, midwestern farm families ate much meat, milk, vegetables, and fresh fruit in the early twentieth century (Cummings 1940). However, this was not true for many in the South. Kentuckians in 1919 and 1920 were relying on pork and maize meal augmented with white flour, and many in the Blue Ridge mountains had similarly restricted diets, with coffee and flour the only store-bought foods (Cummings 1940). When federal relief came to the South during the Great Depression, such foods as whole-wheat flour and grapefruit juice were as alien as coconuts to those in rural areas, who often ignored these introduced foods because they were unfamiliar (Cummings 1940).
The nutritionists of the early twentieth century failed on several counts. One problem was their belief that “mixed foods” were hard to digest. Thus, immigrants were pressured to give up nourishing ethnic dishes, such as Hungarian goulash, for pork chops and applesauce. Another problem was the contemporary enthusiasm for canned foods, even in preference to local, fresh ones, which meant that vitamins and minerals were often inadequate. A third problem was the continued hostility of the nutritionists toward spices and flavorings as well as “fancy cooking” (Shapiro 1986; Levenstein 1988). This often resulted in bland and insipid dishes that made it difficult to interest anyone in this “new nutrition.” Even fresh, hot bread was frowned upon as indigestible by the experts, who advised immigrant families to buy their breakfast bread and pastries during the evening before they were to be eaten so as not to endanger their family’s health (Shapiro 1986).
These same experts told black migrants from the South to abandon “corn pone” and pork in favor of codfish balls and Boston brown bread, although few of them actually did so (Shapiro 1986). Some immigrants also resisted the pressure to conform, most notably the Italians (Shapiro 1986), although the restaurants they established served Italians and others with Americanized versions of spaghetti, garlic bread, and more (Levenstein 1993).
A final problem with the new nutrition was the inconvenience of lengthy food preparation, such as the making of stews, which the nutritionists favored. But greater changes in working-class foodways were afoot. The same era that saw the failed efforts of the nutritionists also witnessed the birth of an American tradition when, in 1916, the nineteenth century’s “hamburger steak” was made into a sandwich by the founders of the White Castle restaurant chain, Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson (Pillsbury 1990).
The Era of Prohibition
In 1919, the United States adopted Prohibition. The Volstead Act – a constitutional amendment outlawing the commercial manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages – had its roots in the temperance movement that had arisen in reaction to the endemic drunkenness of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Long unsuccessful at the national level, the movement had gained momentum during World War I, and suddenly the saloons and free lunches were no more. Prohibition also encouraged the conversion of bars to sandwich counters and hamburger “joints,” while chains of “family restaurants,” such as White Tower, its rival White Castle, and Howard Johnson’s, spread across the nation (Pillsbury 1990).
Once Prohibition laws were in place, organized criminal syndicates and smugglers began providing illegal liquor and beer to those thirsty Americans who were not already making their own. But concern over the rise of crime and violence associated with Prohibition, as well as the onset of the Great Depression, ultimately combined to ensure the repeal of the Volstead Act.
The Great Depression and World War II
The crash of the stock market in late 1929 signaled the start of a decade of severe economic difficulties for the United States, as well as for the rest of the world’s developed nations. Oral history and folklore recount stories of “making do,” and the outright hunger and dietary changes brought about by the depression are reflected in national statistics of the time. Meat consumption dropped from an average of 130 pounds per person per year to 110 pounds. Americans ate an average of just under 10 pounds of dried beans to fill up; the average in 1920 had been just under 6 pounds (Brewster and Jacobson 1978).
The Great Depression was followed by World War II, which shaped the course of world history for the next 50 years. Both world wars had stimulated vigorous drives to persuade the public to eat perishables so that such staples as wheat and beef could be sent overseas to the troops. However, this was not necessarily a hardship. “Meatless days,” the aim of a program established to restrict meat consumption, were bearable when Americans could eat salmon, lobster, or tuna instead (Levenstein 1988). Likewise, because candy companies received large rations of sugar, candy consumption went from 13 pounds per person in the 1930s to 21 pounds in 1944 (Brewster and Jacobson 1978). “Victory gardens” helped to ease the shortage of rationed foods, although, in terms of rationing, Americans were scarcely as deprived as their European counterparts (Tucker 1993). Campaigns prompted people to can foods, and pressure cookers were made available (often on loan from the government), with the average family putting up 165 jars of canned goods annually (Levenstein 1993). In 1941, wartime nutritionists drew up the first table of recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for the chief nutrients. Flour and milk were quickly “fortified” with them (Levenstein 1993), with the augmentation viewed as an inexpensive way to attract consumers (Brewster and Jacobson 1978).
Changes in agricultural technology also began to affect the American diet. In the 1940s, the use of hybrid strains of maize had increased the U.S. maize yield from 30 bushels per acre to 40; by 1980, yields of 100 bushels per acre were the norm. Because hybrid seeds were produced by crossing parent strains, however, farmers who wanted the greater yields that hybrids made possible had to buy seed each year, instead of saving it, as had been the case in the past. Immense profits followed for seed companies as hybrid tomatoes, cotton, and other crops were developed (Kloppenburg 1988). One result has been that older, open-pollinated strains of maize and vegetables have been neglected and, in some cases, pushed to extinction. Another result, in the eyes of critics, is that because much of the increased maize yield has served as animal fodder and only reaches consumers secondhand in the meat they purchase, much energy and land is devoted to (and pollutants created by) what might be seen by some as waste on a massive scale.
“Convenience” Foods and the Homogenization of Tastes
With the 1950s, the new “consumer society” began to demand convenience in food preparation and consumption. Sales of fresh fruit dropped from 140 pounds per person in the 1940s to 90 pounds in the 1960s, whereas those of preserved fruit – loaded with sugar – increased (Brewster and Jacobson 1978). Intensive marketing of soft drinks (the amount consumed went from 90 servings per person per year in 1939 to 500 in 1969) led to a drop in coffee drinking, although the consumption of tea (mostly iced tea) increased very slightly (Brewster and Jacobson 1978). With the promise of more leisure time for cooks and their families, the proliferation of packaged foods put on the table such dishes as a so-called Welsh rarebit, made easier to prepare with Kraft’s “Cheese Whiz” – a processed, foamy “cheese” product sprayed from an aerosol can – introduced in 1953 (Levenstein 1993). Another new food for many 1950s Americans was pizza, made by Italians in local restaurants, and a treat for Mom on her “night off” (Levenstein 1993). Pizza, as is true of many other Americanized foods, soon bore little resemblance to that made in the nation associated with it.
Local menus became more homogeneous in the twentieth century as canned and frozen foods, along with air-shipped fresh foods, increasingly meant that the same foods were available everywhere. As a result, it was (and is) easier for Virginians to buy kiwifruit (imported from New Zealand) than papaws (grown in their own state). Another consequence of the mass movement of staples was the establishment of fast-food restaurant chains. These differed from the chain restaurants of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries in that the standardization of food preparation produced procedures that could be performed by low-paid, unskilled workers. McDonald’s, perhaps the best known of the fast-food chains, began its rise in 1954, when Ray Kroc bought the McDonald brothers’ restaurant and began to expand its hamburger business (Kroc 1977). By 1990, McDonald’s had 8,000 outlets in the United States alone. Each served standardized foods, such as french fries made from Russet Burbank potatoes of uniform size, which were aged for a predetermined period to ensure that uniformity. The mid-1950s also saw the beginnings of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Lums, and a number of other chains that soon followed (Pillsbury 1990).
These restaurants owed their success to several factors. First, identical portions of food could be refrigerated or frozen and shipped to any restaurant in the chain, ensuring that food that tasted the same could always be found under a familiar sign. Second, fried chicken and grilled hamburgers could easily be turned out in assembly-line style, with prices so low that local restaurants had great difficulty in competing. Third, diners generally served and cleaned up after themselves.
Fast food is almost always high in sugar and fat, and the nature of the business, until recently, made fresh fruit and vegetables unlikely offerings. However, in view of the health and environmental concerns of the 1990s, some chains have made salads and pasta available and have added lowfat products.
Revolutions in Food Technology and Distribution
Over the course of the twentieth century, American grocery shopping increasingly centered on large chain stores, which offered a vast variety of foods, ranging from fresh meats and fish to canned and baked goods to an ever-increasing array of frozen foods. Credit for the latter belongs to Clarence Birds-eye, originator in the late 1920s of the brand of frozen foods that bears his name. He developed the “quick-frozen” method, along with cardboard packages that allowed food to freeze and thaw while maintaining an attractive appearance (Levenstein 1993). General Foods purchased his company and prospered, as many American households – even during the depression years – acquired refrigerators with freezing compartments. Others prospered as well; as early as 1941, there were already some 250 firms marketing frozen foods. Refrigerators in the home brought about a reduction in the consumption of canned condensed milk and a concomitant increase in the use of fresh milk (Brewster and Jacobson 1978).
The use of twentieth-century high technology in mass-production food processing was matched by technological advances in the kitchen at home. In general, however, the latter was more an adaptation of traditional cooking strategies to new technologies than the development of a truly new style of cooking. Thus, although the wood-fired ovens of the early nineteenth century were replaced by gas and electric ovens, the cook still put food inside and shut the door to bake, roast, or warm it. Pots were placed on gas or electric burners, just as they had been on wood stoves. Even “new” cooking methods that came into widespread use, such as stir-frying, were rooted in much older cooking techniques (Tropp 1982), while boiling, broiling, frying, and other methods of great antiquity continued to be basic.
Technology, however, has resulted in better and more convenient stoves, cooking “islands” in the kitchen, and a whole array of food processors, choppers, blenders, and toasters. One product of recent technology is the microwave oven, which was common by the 1980s despite widespread misconceptions that it emitted dangerous radiation and made food radioactive. The main advantage of the microwave oven is that it can heat food faster and with less energy than a conventional stove.
Advances in food technology and distribution, however, have not resolved the problems faced by those of low socioeconomic status. Since World War II, government food programs have aimed at not only promoting good nutrition but providing it. Food stamps feed a large number of needy Americans, and the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) distributes nutritious foodstuffs to pregnant and nursing mothers and to children under age 5. This effort has resulted in measurably higher birth weights and a lower percentage of birth defects (Levenstein 1993). There is opposition to these and other aid programs, but they do provide even the poorest Americans with access to supermarket foodstuffs.
The large amounts of meat in the American diet has increasingly become a matter of concern in a country whose people consume one-third of all the meat available in the world (Root and de Rochemont 1976). The same is true of sugar. In the 1970s, American sugar consumption reached 99 pounds per person per year, or more than 4 ounces per day (Root and de Rochemont 1976; Mintz 1985), while the consumption of carbonated beverages totaled 107 billion bottles per year. The American “sweet tooth” doubtless has much to do with such health problems as weight gain, rotten teeth, indigestion, and heart and pancreatic troubles, including hypoglycemia and diabetes. It is also arguable that the replacement of more nourishing vegetable foods by sugar is a cause of iron and calcium deficiency (Root and de Rochemont 1976).The fact that Americans in 1976 took in 125 percent of the fat, yet only 75 percent of the carbohydrates, that had been consumed in 1910 has also become a cause for worry, as heart disease, cancer, and hypertension are all believed to be linked to a fatty diet (Brewster and Jacobson 1978; Robertson, Flinders, and Godfrey 1976).
The nutritionists of the 1970s began to shift the emphasis to holistic health and lifestyle, as it seemed clear that cancer and heart disease involved factors other than diet, such as smoking, lack of exercise, and stress. Cholesterol, a fatty substance that accumulates in arteries, began to receive blame for heart attacks with the meat and milk consumption of the previous century viewed as the reason for high cholesterol levels (Levenstein 1993), and in 1977, alarmed by this news, many Americans started to alter their eating habits by consuming more chicken, fish, and vegetables and less red meat and butter (Levenstein 1993). In something of a contradiction, however, overall beef consumption actually increased, largely because of an increasing reliance on fast foods. Food companies have responded to health concerns by marketing lowfat dishes in frozen and fresh forms (Levenstein 1993), but, of course, lowfat and diet foods often contain a plethora of chemical additives (Belasco 1989).
Alcohol is often seen as posing another health problem. Drinking has had an uncertain status in America since the repeal of Prohibition, and liquor, in particular, has come under attack for its empty calories. On the other hand, since the advantages of moderate wine consumption in the prevention of heart disease were discovered in studies of the “Mediterranean diet,” it has become clear that moderate consumption of any alcohol can be preventive.
Alcoholic beverages from America’s past have been resurrected. The hard cider enjoyed by colonists returned in the 1990s, and two brands share popularity with a variety of “microbrewed” beers (some of which are reminiscent of the beers of yesteryear that were brewed in taverns and private houses) and their mass-produced competitors. Even colonial pumpkin beer has returned. In addition, regional wineries as far north as British Columbia have begun to flourish, using hybrid grape strains capable of producing wine of varying quality. It is unfortunate that many of these, and other, alcoholic beverages often depend for their flavor and consistent quality on chemical additives.
Suspicion has been focused on additives since the late 1950s, when scientists found that the hormones used to fatten chicken and cattle were carcinogenic. Such concerns have resulted in tougher labeling laws and in the banning of dangerous chemicals, such as DDT (Levenstein 1993). Because such bans are generally based on studies involving rats and mice, there are also jokes about how everything gives cancer to mice. Less humorous, however, is the possibility of risks they pose for humans, who consume unknown (but apparently considerable) amounts of additives and chemicals every year. In the eyes of some, food companies argued for years to their discredit that all their ingredients were “natural” before they bowed to consumer pressure for change (Belasco 1989).
Recent Developments in Foodways
The “counterculture” movement of the 1960s brought about an idealistic renewal of interest in vegetarian diets, gardening, and subsistence agriculture. In addition, rural, agricultural communes were formed to pursue “alternative” or “spiritual” ways of life, although most of them were not vegetarian, and many raised animals for consumption. Commune recipes collected in 1970 and 1971 exhibited a heavy use of soybeans and whole grains (Horton 1972).
Food cooperatives, begun in the 1960s, provided members with access to unusual, foreign, and organic foods in exchange for labor. The most famous of these, Berkeley’s “Food Conspiracy,” gave rise to others. A 1990s form of collective food buying was community-supported agriculture (CSA). Thirty or more members belonged to a collective and paid large annual fees (perhaps as much as $1,000) to support a family farm, the produce from which was then divided among its supporters (Iggers 1996). Another new and different way of acquiring food has involved delivery companies that send shipments of meat and other foods (usually frozen) to fill members’ home freezers. Such a service could save substantial amounts of money for members who buy in bulk, as well as ensuring that, as a rule, the meat they consume is of better quality than that offered to the general public.
The emphasis on healthy eating begun in the 1960s continues, as do attempts at self-sufficiency. In the 1990s, about 29 million Americans kept gardens, 26 million fished, and 14 million hunted game (Tucker 1993). Surveys in 1994 and 1997 indicated that at least 2 million Americans were vegetarians; many more, perhaps 10 million, avoided red meat. An estimated 500,000 of these went beyond vegetarianism to become “vegans,” those who eat no foods of animal origin, such as milk, eggs, or honey (Personal communication from the Vegetarian Resource Group 1997). Inspired by “reverence for life” and “animal rights” ideals, vegans hope to create a lifestyle devoid of cruelty to animals. There is a large and growing body of information and misinformation available for vegetarians. The most famous vegetarian cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen, a volume replete with nutritional information, vegetarian and vegan recipes, and moral exhortations, was compiled by members of a vegetarian collective in Berkeley, California (Robertson, Flinders, and Godfrey 1976). Like Sylvester Graham before them, the authors of Laurel’s Kitchen abhor spices, white flour, and meat.
Laurel Robertson and her colleagues drew heavily on the influential work of Adelle Davis and Frances Moore Lappé. Davis was a key figure in Rodale Press’s network of organic gardening cooks and writers. Accused in the late 1950s and early 1960s of providing readers with potentially harmful information on vitamins and minerals, as well as disquieting cooking and eating practices, she was labeled “potentially dangerous” long before her death from cancer – a disease that she believed her pattern of mineral and vitamin consumption would prevent. She also thought that it would prevent heart disease, yet her editor, J. I. Rodale, died of a heart attack (Levenstein 1993).
Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, advocated replacing meat protein with “complementary” proteins found in grains and beans in order to lessen the stress placed on the world’s environment by the feeding of grain to meat animals. Lappé’s inspiration had been another fad diet, “macrobiotics,” invented by George Ohsawa in Paris and allegedly based on Zen monastic cooking from Japan. This regime consisted of a series of diets, each more restrictive than the last. At first, converts partook of fish, noodles, clam sauce, and vegetables, according to the season (round food was eaten in winter, for example). But at the most restrictive level of macrobiotics, no food was permitted save brown rice and 8 ounces of liquid per day. The American Medical Association condemned macrobiotics, but this has only made it more attractive to “cranks” and conspiracy-minded “brown-ricers” (Levenstein 1993).
Then there have been fads, normally involving relatively small numbers of people, concerning cooking utensils. An example was the German Römertopf (“pot of the Romans”), an unglazed clay vessel used to bake meat and vegetables without the use of oil. Although capable of producing interesting results, the pot was difficult to use with many traditional recipes and proved to be a commercial failure in the United States (Tropp 1982). Another fad, backyard grilling, represents a considerable expansion of men’s role in home cooking, which early in the twentieth century was limited to carving the meat (Levenstein 1993).
In a wider and somewhat contrasting development, the increase in career options for women has brought about a partial eclipse of regional and ethnic cooking traditions, as fewer families cook traditional meals “from scratch” at home. Although such meals were never fads, the often laborious preparation of such ethnic foods as tamales or raviolis is now generally confined to holidays. At the turn of the 1990s, only about 15 percent of American households regularly cooked and ate three meals a day at home (Belasco 1989).
Nonetheless, the appeal of the exotic is stronger than ever, with fads for ethnic cuisine coming and going much like technological fads such as home bread- and pasta-making machines. One important result has been to make exotic ingredients increasingly more available. Native American foods, such as Jerusalem artichokes and wild mushrooms, can be found in giant chain stores side by side with Thai lemongrass, fresh habanero peppers, Italian mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. Honey mead, nowadays little known in the Western world, can generally be found in Ethiopian restaurants; “chicken Kiev” and fried rice, once rare treats, are now available in grocery stores in both frozen and unfrozen forms (Levenstein 1993).
Another exotic influence has to do with the latest influx of Spanish-speaking peoples to the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century, along with an increase in the number of Americans who speak Spanish. This trend has led to a nationwide acceptance of “Mexican” or “Tex-Mex” (meaning a combination of Texan and Mexican) foods. Chi-Chi’s, Taco Bell, and other restaurant chains serve various versions of “Tex-Mex” cuisine to millions of customers, and burritos, tacos, and salsa are available in restaurants and supermarkets everywhere. Indeed, sales of salsa surpassed those of catsup in the 1990s.
The chilli pepper became a trend in itself in the 1990s. Catalogs listed hundreds of varieties of hot sauce, and representations of peppers decorated everything from china to underwear (DeWitt and Gerlach 1990). Monthly magazines and Internet Web sites listed enormous numbers of hot and hotter dishes; some incorporated explosive amounts of capsaicin (the chemical that produces the chilli’s characteristic burning sensation), which is derived from specially bred varieties of peppers. Just one Red Savina, the hottest chilli pepper marketed in 1996, was alleged to be capable of producing spicy “heat”in 200 pounds of sauce!
Chilli peppers also figure prominently in the new cooking of Asian-Americans. The presence of Chinese people in California since the days of the gold rush has introduced the sophisticated culture and cookery of China to consumers. Changes in immigration laws in 1965 permitted a new wave of Asian immigrants, many of them Chinese, who found a tradition of Chinese-American cooking already in place. The 1980s fad for stir-frying induced supermarkets to carry Oriental vegetables, bean sprouts, soy sauce, and other Chinese sauces. Woks and Chinese steamers appeared in gourmet food stores, and earlier Cantonese restaurants were joined by Sichuan, Hunan, and “Peking”-style eateries. Ordinary Americans discussed and ate “pot-stickers” and other dim sum (a series of small portions of a variety of foods), and the availability of Asian foods – including Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai, among others – continues to grow.
Food writers and chefs, such as Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Martin Yan also helped to introduce exotic cooking techniques and ingredients in their television programs and cookbooks. Child was perhaps the most influential in a drive to bring French cuisine to the American table; Yan’s “Yan Can Cook” combined Chinese-American food with comedy and culture; and Beard’s cookbooks are valuable resources for anyone studying gourmet cooking. The popularity of such books and programs has encouraged in Americans both a receptiveness to new ingredients and a demand for produce, meats, and seasonings that are absolutely fresh.
It is not easy to predict the future of foodways in America. Such major trends as preservation by freezing, dehydration, irradiation, and the use of additives will doubtless continue. The near future may bring “tissue culture,” a technology that can produce coffee, spices, and drugs without growing entire plants (Kloppenburg 1988). The accelerating demand for speed and convenience in the 1990s that resulted in so many new time-saving products will probably also stay with us. Examples of really “fast” foods are packaged salads, sold with dressing so that the consumer simply opens the package and eats; microwave brownies, “baked” in a microwave oven; caramel topping that requires only pouring onto baked apples; “no-bake” cheesecake in machine-made pie crusts; and even ready-made omelettes that can be microwaved.
It seems clear that more and more processed foods of every kind, including those altered by biotechnology, will confront the consumers of the future. Probably we will also continue to witness the phenomenon of one ethnic food fad succeeding another, this accompanied by the marketing of ethnic foodstuffs in “Americanized” forms to satisfy desires for foods that are exotic but nevertheless familiar. Health and environmental concerns will doubtless lead to an increasing consumer insistence on accurate labeling and honest marketing procedures. As the planet becomes increasingly crowded in the twenty-first century, more efficient strategies will be required to feed growing numbers of people. America’s vast bounty will likely be called upon, and it is to be hoped that the response will be both thoughtful and caring.