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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Colonial Food

With Independence Day tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting to look at the food that sustained the Founding Fathers as they sweated it out in Independence Hall, creating our great nation.  As you would expect, meals in the 18th Century were quite different than we know them today.  There really was no "typical" Colonial Era meal--it depended on the person's wealth, what region they were living in, whether they were in an urban or rural area and what time of the year it happened to be.

Inside the steamy State House.
In general, our 3 square meals didn't exist in Colonial times.  Breakfast was eaten early if you were poor (usually after even earlier chores) and later if you were rich (after sleeping in).  On farms and frontier settlements, it usually consisted of cider or beer and some porridge that cooked all night.  In towns, a mug of cider or beer accompanied cornmeal mush with molasses (often followed by more cider or beer).  Southern poor would often eat cold turkey (washed down with--you guessed it--cider or beer).  In the Northeast, breads, cold meats and fruit pies were part of the menu.  Coastal areas would have lots of local fish, as you might expect.  Of course, in Colonial Bucks County, things like scrapple and fried sweetcakes were popular.

Colonial Americans didn't have a meal called "lunch".  Instead, "dinner" was served in the early afternoon and was the big, sustaining meal of the day.  Poor families often ate from "trenchers"--pieces of stale bread that were used as plates.  Stews, often of pork, corn and cabbage, would be ladled onto the trencher.  If the bread softened up enough, it would be eaten.  If not, it was given to the animals.  More affluent families would have menus made of meats, meat puddings and pies, fruits, pancakes and fritters, pickles and soups.  Desserts finished the meal--fruits, custards and tarts.

A meal at the time of day when we eat dinner was not always eaten.  "Supper" in Colonial times, was a brief meal--sometimes not long before bedtime, if at all--made up of leftovers or gruel (oats, cornmeal or other grains boiled with water).  Some sort of alcoholic beverage was almost always served.  In the South, egg dishes were popular and in New England, salt-roasted potatoes became a staple.

The still "genteel" City Tavern.
Although families did use big meals as part of celebrations as we do, they did not go out to eat for the fun of it.  Most taverns were not known for good food and most of the people who ate there were travelers who needed something to eat, some spirits to drink and some company.

Since many of the Continental Congress were far from home during their time in Philly, the tavern was home to these men while they served in Congress.  Luckily for them, Philadelphia was probably the most culinarily advanced city in the Colonies.  English, French and West Indian influences led to a variety of food choices.  Philadelphia pastries and other confections--including ice cream--were known to be the best in America.  Taverns thrived and markets were full of rare items brought in through the busiest port in the New World.

Philly's City Tavern, still serving Colonial fare today, was known as THE place to be for members of Congress.  In David McCullough's book, John Adams, he writes: "Adams, recording his first arrival in Philadelphia in August 1774, had written that 'dirty, dusty, and fatigued as we were, we could not resist the importunity to go to the [City] Tavern,' which, he decided, must be the most genteel place of its kind in all the colonies."  A few days later, Adams met George Washington while dining there.  Without good food and drink, who knows what would have happened all those years ago in the State House?  It's awfully hard to start a country on an empty stomach!

Have a fun and safe holiday!

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