A brief and fascinating glimpse at how the Colonists dined in April, 1775.
It’s Patriots Day and time for a history lesson of a different sort.
We know millions of details about the Shot Heard Round the World. And the brave Minutemen who grabbed their muskets to face down the advancing British columns.
But what do we know of their daily lives? After a long day spent shooting at His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, what was for supper?
THOSE FANCY IMPORTED GOODS
Before we answer that question, you should know that trendy food did not originate with quiche, bottled water and organic salads in the 1970s.
By the time talk of revolution began to stir among the Colonies 200 years earlier, a consumer revolution of sorts had taken hold. Puritan America, which had embraced moderation and disdained extravagance, had already run its course.
By the early and mid-eighteenth century, fancy imported goods – including heretofore unavailable specialty foods – were all the rage among those who could afford them.
Slowly those goods began to make their way out of seaport communities like Salem and Boston into stores that dotted the New England farming countryside. Treats like coffee, tea, rum, spices and molasses to flavor food.
“Everyone wanted to have them, at least some coffee, some tea, some spices,” explains Keith Stavely, co-author (with Kathleen Fitzgerald) of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. Colonists typically traded with these stores and paid for the goods in barter with their farm surplus.
NOT THE HEARTY MEALS WE IMAGINE
But the farmers who faced down the Brits were largely subsistence farmers who rarely ran a surplus. Their diet consisted mostly of milk, beans, potatoes, and a course brown bread known as “rye and Indian bread.” This dense, heavy bread came from cornmeal, or Indian Corn, as it was known; the staple grain of native Americans. Massachusetts Colonists also mixed in rye, the European grain they brought over with them. It was gluten free of necessity (neither grain contained it).
Their main meal was dinner – the mid-day meal. In addition to the aforementioned, they often turned to another native American staple, succotash: a type of bean porridge that evolved over time to include meat, vegetables and potato.
However, in their day, the porridge or stew included salted meat (most often pork) only if they had some.
This stew was an adaptation of the pottage they were accustomed to eating in England as well as the Indian one-pot meal. It was typically cooked over a fire since most homes could not yet afford to build a brick oven.
They consumed it day in and day out. A simple meal of bread and milk usually started and ended each day.
In the warmer months, they could get fresh game and fish from hunting. But even by the onset of the Revolution, hunting had diminished the local deer population so dramatically that these farmers had to rely on small game. They also supplemented their dinners with berries in season and perhaps greens from their garden, which they typically boiled.
Pepper and molasses were the high-end extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar of their day. Baked beans – which would have to be baked at the house of a neighbor or a tavern that possessed a rare oven – and Boston brown bread would not have been sweetened with molasses typically until nearly a century later in the 1870’s .
Our Patriot forefathers were not conspicuous consumers because they couldn’t afford it. None of which stopped the British empire from attempting to tax their colonists, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765. If that tax proved unpopular, imagine the reaction to the series of smaller taxes that followed, culminating in the famous tea tax a few years later.
SIMPLICITY REPLACES CONSUMPTION
By then, as conflict deepened between the colonies and England, so did opposition to any trace of extravagance and luxury. The pendulum had swung the other way. Suddenly, indulging in foreign teas, china ware, spices – all equated with British and foreign manufacture – were out. The “honest simplicity” of domestically produced goods was in.
There are stories of patriots trying to shame their less-conscientious brethren into giving up tea and other verboten items completely.
As tough as their meals were at home, it was even more difficult for the Minutemen when they began their long struggle for independence on April 19. “Johnnycakes were a type of flatbread; part of a long tradition of preparing corn meal, which they learned from the Indians. In its simplest form, you could keep it forever in your knapsack,” Stavely explains.
At least their everyday beverage was a step up. They started out drinking beer and ale, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because they could depend on it to be cleaner than water. However, apple growing proved so successful in these parts that cider soon supplanted alcohol. And apple cider took its rightful place as the drink that fueled the American revolution.
We’ll continue our tour of Colonial cookery on Independence Day.
Until then, click over to the blog of Northern Hospitality authors Stavely and Fitzgerald (here) for their Patriots Day selection: Catharine Beecher’s Beef or Veal Stewed with Apples. This is a 19th century version of a fairly typical 18th century meal.
Fitzgerald successfully updated the recipe on their blog, (here). She reports, “Cooked slowly together, these unassuming ingredients achieve unexpected flavor and complexity.”
(1) By Hy. Sandham
Source: Idyls and Pastorals: A Home Gallery of Poetry and Art
Copyright 1886 D. Lothrop & Co., Boston
(2) The Minute Men Called to Arms, By Jennie Brownscombe.
Reproduced from the Harry O. Eichleay collection.
(thanks to Norman J. Meinert)
(3) Minute Men Leaving the Home of Captain Isaac Davis, April 19, 1775
by Arthur Fuller Davis. Owned by Acton Memorial Library.
(4) By Abel Parker
(6) Catharine Beecher, 1848. Courtesy the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.