Cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies
The cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies includes the foods, eating
habits, and cooking methods of the British colonies in North
America before the establishment of the United States in the 1770s
and 1780s. It was derived from familiar traditions from the
colonists’ home countries in the British Isles and particularly
England. Many agricultural items came to the New World through
trade with England and the West Indies. Certain familiar items
grew better in the New World than others, and this led to a
dependence on imports which drove the daily lives of the
colonists. However, the colonial diet was increasingly
supplemented by new animal and plant foods indigenous to the New
the years leading up to 1776, a number of events led to a drastic
change in the diet of the American colonists. Taxes and tariffs
levied by England increased the costs of goods and caused
colonists to hold a grudge toward the British monarchy and British
imports. Import tariffs and taxes, and other issues, eventually
led to the American Revolution. As they could no longer depend on
British and West Indian imports, agricultural practices of the
colonists began to focus on becoming completely self sufficient.
The majority of immigrants to North America in the 17th and 18th
centuries came from various parts of Britain in four waves. These
four migration waves established the four major regional cultures
that still affect life in the United States to this day.
Each of the migrations settled in different regions and were
dominated by regional cultures from the British Isles that were
transplanted across the Atlantic. Along with specific customs
related to everything from religion to language, the British
migrants brought with them food habits that formed major regional
cuisines of English-speaking America.
England was the first region to experience large scale
colonization in the early 17th century, beginning in 1620, and it
was dominated by East Anglian Calvinists, better known as the
Puritans. The religious fundamentalism of the Puritans created a
cuisine that was austere, disdainful of feasting and with few
embellishments. Eating was seen as a largely practical matter and
one of the few occasions when New Englanders would engage in
massive bouts of eating and drinking was at funerals, times when
even children might drink large amounts of alcohol.
Age was one of the most important signs of authority and
determined eating practices; though Puritan society was less
stratified, particularly compared to the southern colonies, heads
of the household and their spouses would often eat separately from
both children and servants. Though New England had a great
abundance of wildlife and seafood, traditional East Anglian fare
was preferred, even if it had to be made with New World
ingredients. Baked beans and pease porridge were everyday fare,
particularly during the winter, and usually eaten with coarse,
At first it was made with a mixture of wheat and maize (corn),
but after a disease called wheat rust struck in the 1660s, it was
made of rye and maize creating what has later been known as "rye
'n' injun". Vegetables with meat boiled thoroughly was a popular
dish, and unlike many other regions in North American colonies,
they were together, rather than separately, and frequently without
seasoning. Baking was a particular favorite of the New Englanders
and was the origin of dishes today seen as quintessentially
American, such as apple pie and the baked Thanksgiving turkey.
mid-17th century a second wave of English immigrants began
arriving in North America, settling mainly around Chesapeake Bay
in Virginia and Maryland, though English settlers had lived in
Virginia, along the James River, since 1608. The Virginian
settlers were dominated by English noblemen with their servants
(many were Cavaliers fleeing in the aftermath of the English Civil
War 1642–51) and poor peasants from southern England.
The society the Cavaliers brought with them was highly
stratified and this was reflected in food and eating habits. The
aristocrats that would be the basis for the First Families of
Virginia were very fond of game and red meat. Roast beef was a
particular favorite, and even when oysters and goose were
available, wealthy colonists could complain about the absence of
meat. Virginia was the only place in North America where haute
cuisine of any kind was practiced before the 19th century.
Virginians such as William Byrd (1652–1704) would indulge in
extravagant dishes such as stewed swan or roast snipe, dinners
were important social events, and the art of dinner conversation
was considered an important skill in affluent households. Poor
white farmers and black slaves ate much more humble fare and were
quicker to incorporate American and African foodstuffs and
flavorings. The food of the poor whites in the 17th century was
similar to soul food of the 20th century.
Overall, both rich and poor southerners ate spicier and more
pungent food than elsewhere in the early colonies, and feasting
was an important part of life for all social classes. Cooking in
southern England was noted for a tendency toward frying, simmering
and roasting, and this also became true for Virginian cooking.
While wealthy households tended to vary cooking methods greatly,
poor households were generally confined to boiling and frying.
The only form of cooking that was slow to develop was baking.
Typical dishes among the upper classes were fricassees of various
meats with herbs, and sometimes a good amount of claret. Common
food among the lower classes was corn porridge, or mush, and
hominy with greens and salt-cured meat, and later the traditional
southern fried chicken.
Delaware Valley and Mid-Atlantic region
Quakers emigrated to the New World from the Northern English
Midlands during the 17th century, and eventually settled primarily
in the Delaware Valley. They were similar to the Puritans in
the strictness that they applied to everyday life, though their
religious teachings were far more egalitarian. The food was plain
Excessive consumption was discouraged and failure to eat or
drink moderately was punished with public acts of self-criticism.
William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and an important figure
in the development of the Quaker movement encouraged frugality in
his followers with advice such as "If thou rise with an appetite
thou are sure never to sit down without one".
Just like the Puritans, the Quakers encountered an abundance of
food in the New World; forests rich with game and berries, streams
teeming with fish, and flocks of birds so abundant that they would
sometimes block the sun for several hours. Still the asceticism
persevered. Many Quakers avoided eating butter as a form of
self-mortification, and the most eccentric followers would avoid
tea and meat.
The idealist and pacifist ideas of the Quakers also encouraged
many to boycott products that were considered to be tainted by
sin. This included salt, due to its role in raising war taxes, and
sugar, because it was produced by slave labor. Eating habits were
more egalitarian than either that of the Puritans or the Virginian
Anglicans. At meals, entire households would dine at the same
table, including children and servants.
The most typical cooking method of the Quakers was boiling, a
method brought from ancestral northern England. Boiled breakfast
and dinner were standard fare, as well as "pop-robbins", balls of
batter made from flour and eggs boiled in milk. Boiled dumplings
and puddings were so common in Quaker homes that they were
referred to by outsiders as "Quakers' food".
Travelers noted apple dumplings as an almost daily dish in the
Delaware Valley and cook books specialized in puddings and
dumplings. Food was mostly preserved through boiling, simmering or
standing. A popular genre of dishes made from this favored method
of food preparation was "cheese" (or "butter"), a generic term for
dishes prepared by slow boiling or pressing. It could be made from
ingredients as varying as apples (i.e. apple butter), plums and
walnuts. Cream cheese had its origins in Quaker cooking, but was
in colonial times not true cheese made with rennet or curds, but
rather cream that was warmed gently and then allowed to stand
between cloth until it became semi-solid. Dried beef was widely
popular in the Delaware Valley and was eaten along with puddings
and dumplings to add flavor.
The use of dried beef was so widespread that it was often
called "Quaker gravy" in the 18th century. Though the Quaker
influence from the Northern Midlands was the most dominant, there
was some influence from German immigrants during the 18th century.
Scrapple, a pot pudding made from meat scraps and grain, became a
staple of the regional cuisine for many generations.
last major wave of British immigrants to the colonies took place
from 1720–1775. About 250,000 people travelled across the Atlantic
primarily to seek economic betterment and to escape hardships and
famine. Most of these came from the borderlands of northern
Britain and were of Irish or Scottish descent.
Many were poor and therefore accustomed to hard times, setting
them apart from the other major British immigrant groups. They
settled in what would come to be known generally as the
"Backcountry", on the frontier and in the highlands in the north
and south. The backcountry relied heavily on a diet based on mush
made from soured milk or boiled grains. Clabber, a yoghurt-like
food made with soured milk, was a standard breakfast dish and was
eaten by backcountry settlers of all ages.
This dietary habit was not shared by other British immigrant
groups and was equally despised by those still in Britain. The
Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason, who spent time among Ulster
Irish immigrants, described them as depending "wholly on butter,
milk, clabber and what in England is given to hogs". Oatmeal mush
was a popular meal in the British borderlands and remained popular
The only difference was that the oatmeal was replaced by corn,
and is still known today in the South as grits. Cakes of
unleavened dough baked on bakestones or circular griddles were
common and went by names such as "clapbread", "griddle cakes" and
"pancakes". While the potato had originated in South America, it
did not became established in North America until it was brought
to the colonies by northern British settlers in the 18th century
and became an important backcountry staple along with corn.
Pork had been a food taboo among northern Britons and the
primary meat had been sheep. In the American colonies the raising
of sheep was not as efficient and mutton was therefore replaced
with pork. The habit of eating "sallet" or "greens" remained
popular, but the vegetables of the Old World were replaced with
plants like squashes, gourds, beans, corn, land cress and
The distinctive cooking style of the British borderlands and
the American backcountry was boiling. Along with clabber,
porridge and mushes, the typical dishes were various stews, soups
and pot pies.
Two meals per day, a hearty breakfast and an early supper, was
the standard. Food was eaten from wooden or pewter trenchers
with two-tined forks, large spoons and hunting knives.
Dishware was not popular since it was easily breakable and tended
to dull knives quickly. Unlike the Quakers and Puritans,
feasting with an abundance of food and drink was never discouraged
and practiced as often as was feasible.
Generally, the backcountry cuisine did not share the religious
austerity of the North nor the refinement of the South and was
therefore denigrated by outside commentators. An apparent
lack of fastidiousness in preparing the food provoked further
criticism from many sources. The Anglican Woodmason
characterized backcountry cooking as "exceedingly filthy and most
Others told of matrons washing their feet in the cookpot, that
it was considered unlucky to wash a milk churn and that human
hairs in butter were considered a sign of quality. These
descriptions seem to be confirmed by an old saying attributed to
Appalachian housewives: "The mair [more] dirt the less hurt".
Another expression of backcountry hardiness was the lack of
appreciation of coffee and tea. Both were described as mere
"slops" and were deemed appropriate only for those who were sick
or unfit for labor.