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Colonial America | Culture | Cuisine

Visit Plimoth Plantation's
website to learn about
Wampanoag and Pilgrim

Learn everything you ever
wanted to know about
hardtack (crackers).

It is difficult to imagine how our earliest colonial ancestors fed themselves. The first colonists found no supermarkets, no restaurants, and no hotels or inns. There were no refrigerators, no canned foods, and ways of packing and preserving provisions were not as reliable as modern methods. These settlers were mostly on their own and neither the Pilgrims of Massachusetts nor the Cavaliers of Virginia coped very well during the first few years. However, the Plymouth colonists and those of Massachusetts Bay did become self-sufficient in a short number of years. Virginians remained dependent on supplies from England and did not become self-sufficient farmers until after tobacco was cultivated as a commercial crop by John Rolfe. Notably, both groups of colonists were also dependent on trade with and the expertise of Indigenous Americans.

Learn more about the
Jamestown colonists’ struggles
to feed themselves.

While arriving in a new land in the late fall did not help, the reality is that the first colonists simply were not prepared to become hunters, fishers, and farmers overnight. The situation called for men and women used to hard labor. Instead, both the north and the south got refugees from the middle class — merchants, industrialists, trades people, and artisans who were not immediately needed, though they would have been valuable once the problem of feeding and housing everyone had been solved.

Discover interesting recipes
in this 1615 cookbook.

Learn more about the arrival
of cows and milk history in
colonial America.

The fact that these early colonists brought their English preferences for consumable goods and were leery of trying new things exacerbated the problem of finding food. While the Dutch of New Amsterdam were impressed by the size of the lobsters in the ocean, Plymouth settlers thought that because lobsters piled up on the beaches in huge quantities they were only good for poor people who could afford nothing better. In 1623, when a group of new colonists arrived in Plymouth, Governor William Bradford was deeply humiliated because his colony was so short of food that the only "dish they could presente their friends with was a lobster ... without bread or anything els but a cupp of fair water." Storms on the coast also left tidal pools full of crabs that the colonists wouldn't eat, as well as the oysters and mussels that were available. Clams became accepted in time, but it is recorded that in the 1620's the Pilgrims fed clams and mussels to their hogs saying that they were "the meanest of God's blessings."

Enjoy a 17th century harvest
complete with recipes.

Find out more about the
history of salad.

Other available fish included salmon that swam through the rivers each year, returning from the sea to spawn. Sea trout, eels, herring, mackerel and sea bass were also abundant. Of course, the first fishing vessels had to be built and sent from England. Game in the forests included deer, bear, moose, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, fox, wolf, beaver, and otters. Birds were plentiful and the rivers and lakes had ducks, geese, swans and cranes.

Discover more about
making jellies and jams.

The forests were full of edible mushrooms, nuts, blueberries, huckleberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, wild cherries, and currants. The shores were fringed with cranberry bogs, groves of wild beach plums, crab apples, and in Virginia sweet red and white grapevines spiraled up the trees. However, while the plants resembled species known in Europe, the colonists considered the new foods potentially poisonous until they had been examined carefully or had been taught about them by Indigenous Americans.

Learn about cranberries and
how Native Americans and
British colonists used this fruit.

Since the colonists were unwilling to risk consuming unfamiliar foods, they divided up the remaining food supplies from England including hardtack, dried fish, cheese, and beer. But these supplies were soon exhausted and they started to use Indian corn (also called flint corn) even though it was new to them. The alternative was to starve.

What did colonists eat once they began farming? Much of early American cuisine was geared toward survival. It took time for rye, barley, oats, and wheat brought from Europe to adapt to new growing conditions in America. Since wheat and rye were initially scarce and soon were reserved for bread and pies, the colonists planted and used corn, or maize, for everything else. Two vegetables were also adopted by the early colonists — the American bean and the squash. In time, they added the potato, sweet potato, and Jerusalem artichoke to their diet.

Find out more about the
history of yeast and bread.

Rough brown bread or biscuit was a staple, made from a mix of wheat flour and cornmeal. Breads were skillet-cooked, or risen and baked in a clay or loam oven. Fruit tarts were made the same way. Flour had to be ground from the grains. When wheat rust (a disease caused by fungi) became a problem, rye flour was substituted and the combination produced a crust so hard it could be used instead of a spoon to scoop up other foods. Colonists consumed white hard bread or hardtack (crackers). Oats appeared in many dishes from porridge — a soft food made by boiling oatmeal in water or milk — to "flummery," a jelly-like substance made of flour and oatmeal, flavored with spices and dried fruit.

Some of the seeds brought over by the Mayflower may not have flourished. The 1621 pea crop failed, but the barley survived and provided colonists with malt for beer. Beets, cabbages, carrots, lettuce, melons, onions, parsnips, radishes, and turnips were grown and often mixed together with other ingredients in hot or cold sallets (salads). When those ran short, settlers turned to oatmeal, pease puddings, and boiled mush (a thick porridge or pudding of cornmeal boiled in water or milk).

Corn was not just food. No
part of the plant was thrown
away. Husks were braided
and woven into masks,
moccasins, sleeping mats,
baskets, and dolls. Corncobs
were used for fuel, toys,
ceremonial rattles and pipes.

Corn was not eaten as sweet corn-on-the-cob or popcorn — it was roasted or "parched." There was no "Indian pudding" since there was no molasses. The early use of cranberries was restricted because sugar was scarce. Cranberries may have been used in stuffings that were called "puddings in the belly." Later, when sugar and other sweeteners were available, cranberries were made into jelly or preserves.

Another staple of the diet was called "pease porridge" which gradually developed into New England baked beans. Pease porridge was traditional cold-weather fare for New Englanders of all classes. In the 18th century, "pease" became known as "pea beans" (same crop, different name).

Learn more about
some of the beverages
the American colonists drank.

Everything was washed down with beer, aqua vitae (brandy or "strong waters") or water. Milk was not drunk whole, but as whey. Children drank beer. There was no cider — apples, pears, and other orchard fruits needed years to mature into fruit-bearing trees. Once the colonists began using native fruits, most of them were dried and preserved.

Plimoth Plantation, a nearly
exact replica of Plymouth
Colony, uses livestock as
part of this recreation. The
livestock (now considered
rare breeds) are nearly
identical with the animals
the Pilgrims had.

There is no exact record of animals on the Mayflower, but there were probably chickens, goats, and perhaps a few pigs. The records about cattle divisions show that cows arrived soon after the Mayflower on other ships. However, livestock was initially too precious to be killed for food since the live animals provided families with milk and fresh eggs. Also cream from cow's milk was churned into butter.

"Game made the settlement of America possible," says one historian. For a considerable time after the arrival of the first settlers, game was not only the main meat eaten by the colonists, it was often the main food. Game was relied on even after hogs and cows were more numerous.

When meat was available, New Englanders boiled it right along with the vegetables without seasonings of any kind. The sense of sameness in New England food was deepened by its dining habits. On Yankee tables, every dish arrived at the same time "all piled together, without regard to French doctrine of courses." A heavy pudding stuffed into a cloth bag could steam atop the vegetables and meat. Broth from this boiled dinner could reappear as "pottage" with the addition of minced herbs and some oatmeal or barley for thickening.

English cooking emphasized meats, with wild game and fowl most desirable. Meats were spit-roasted for hours above an open fire or boiled, and fish boiled or grilled. Bread, puddings, and beer shared the table. Foods and sauces were flavored using dried fruits (sugar supplies were nearly exhausted by 1621), and some spices. The colonists would have brought a supply of cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cloves and pepper, but allspice from South America came into use later.

Virginians preferred to roast, simmer, or fry their food using spices such as marjoram, thyme, and savory to flavor it. While New Englanders filled up on their baked beans, colonists in the south resorted to fricassees — poultry or meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy in an open pan. Chicken, rabbit, veal, venison, lamb, and fowl all found their way into fricassees. By the 18th century, fried chicken had already become a distinct regional dish. A staple of the poorer colonists in the south was a one-dish meal called a "mess," usually consisting of greens and salt meat (salt-cured meat), seasoned with wild herbs. Another was hominy or the corn porridge called mush.

The main drawback to meat was that it would not keep and therefore it was usually eaten during the winter. When the weather was hot, there was no point in killing game or livestock unless it could be eaten in the next meal or two. Preserving it by smoking, drying, or pickling it was not impossible, just more difficult.

Butchering game and livestock was back breaking work and definitely not for the squeamish. A hog, for instance, first had to be killed. Then the carcass was dragged to the scalding boards where boiling water was splashed on it, allowing the fat to spread and making it easier to shave and scrape off hair. Next, the carcass was hoisted onto poles hanging from a tree and gutted. The entrails, liver, heart, lungs, and stomach were collected in a tub and then buried.

The next job was to cut off the head. Some people liked fried hogs brains so those were saved. Then came carving up the carcass. First the shoulders were cut off which could be left whole, like hams, and put in the smokehouse. Next the belly and back were sectioned into loins, followed by the fine work of sectioning off the ribs for pork chops and tenderloins.

The last job, except for salting the hams and shoulders and bacon, was to separate the fat from the meat underneath. Bacon was carved off and the fat was sliced into sections from 6 inches to a foot long. It was a greasy job and hard to hold onto a knife.

Then it was time to render the lard and make sausage. The fat was diced into smaller pieces and placed in a large pot set over a fire. This was perhaps the most dangerous operation because boiling fat produced oil and grease that was highly flammable. If the grease fell in the fire, it would explode. The fat from an average hog could produce about ten buckets of lard.

If growing, hunting, fishing, trapping, and butchering the food weren't enough, it also had to be cooked. That chore fell to the women. (Over time, and as the colonies grew, wealthier families would have servants or enslaved people—both males and females—doing most of the cooking and household chores.) The first housewives would not have had cookbooks. However, they were probably aware of culinary trends — and trained in basic roasting, stewing, boiling, broiling, spicing, saucing, and other cooking techniques. Yet even the simplest of meals required many skills. Cooking was done over an open fire on the hearth and the first fireplaces were rather primitive affairs made of stones cleared from the fields. Thanks to incoming ships and more skilled workers, these first crude structures were soon replaced with fireplaces made of brick and mortar.

The first utensil the 17th century cook enjoyed — often the only one — was a large iron kettle with three short legs that allowed it to stand directly in the hearth over the flames or embers. Sometimes it was hung over the fire suspended by a hook made of green wood that would not easily catch fire. Sometimes the hook caught fire anyway or was used too long and broke, dumping the dinner into the flames. The kettle was heavy, too, weighing as much as forty pounds. Manipulating it was exhausting and dangerous and burns were commonplace. Other problems included embers hopping into the soup, which was likely to happen if hemlock or chestnut was used to make the fire. Both of these woods have a tendency to throw sparks. At other times, grease from meat spitted over the fire would drip into the flames and cause a larger fire.

The fireplaces were cavernous and cooks could stand in them, often regulating several fires at any given time. The cook needed to manage without kitchen timers and thermometers, regulating the fire temperature by lowering or raising the pots, turning the spit, adjusting the embers, and calculating the position of the sun. Baking was the most difficult because it required an oven and a supply of yeast. Yeast and fires both had to be kept going since it was difficult to start either of them again. Yeast had to taken from the top of fermenting ale or beer or a piece of dough from an earlier baking. If a fire went out, there were no matches. Someone would have to go with a fire pan to a neighbor, if one lived nearby, and borrow some of their coals. If this was inconvenient, a tinder box was used. Tinder was made by charring cotton or linen rags. Then the tinder was ignited by the sparks created when a piece of steel was struck with a piece of flint. Once the tinder was burning, a small sliver of wood or a homemade match (a piece of wood dipped in melted brimstone [sulphur]) was set on fire by the tinder and used to start the larger fire. If all conditions were right, it could take just a few minutes to start a fire this way.

The first permanent ovens were simply brick compartments built into the inside walls of the fireplace. Baking was a chore performed perhaps once a week to provide enough bread to last until the next baking day. If the oven was big enough, everything was put in at the same time, the bread that took the longest to bake was put in the back and smaller items were placed toward the front so they could be easily removed when done.

Clearly, cooking and fire-tending were time-consuming chores. Wives (and often the female children) were also involved in early-morning milking, egg gathering, and butter-churning, as well as planting and tending the gardens.

Learn about fast food
during colonial times.

Keeping the household running was a difficult and challenging job. Wives bought, sold, or traded their produce or other staples for what they needed from other families in the village. As settlements grew, this often meant trekking on foot, horseback, or by wagon from one village to the next in order to obtain the needed items.

While the early days of the colonies didn't really involve a "cuisine," women played a vital role in the colonies. A family's very survival depended on the women of the family to literally keep the home fires burning and everyone fed.

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