Diet before the American Revolution
When colonists arrived in America, they planted familiar crops
from the Old World with varying degrees of success and raised
domestic animals for meat, leather, and wool, as they had done in
Britain. The colonists faced difficulties owing to different
climate and other environmental factors, but trade with Britain,
continental Europe, and the West Indies allowed the American
colonists to create a cuisine similar to the various regional
Local plants and animals offered tantalizing alternatives to the
Old World diet, but the colonists held on to old traditions and
tended to use these items in the same fashion as they did their
Old World equivalents (or even ignore them if more familiar foods
were available). The American colonial diet varied depending
on region, with local cuisine patterns established by the mid-18th
A preference for British cooking methods is apparent in
cookbooks brought to the New World. There was a general
disdain for French cookery, even among the French Huguenots in
South Carolina and French Canadians. One cookbook common in
the colonies, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by
Hannah Glasse, held the French style of cookery in disdain,
stating "the blind folly of this age that would rather be imposed
on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English
She does add French recipes to the text but speaks out
flagrantly against the dishes, "...think(ing) it an odd jumble of
trash." The French and Indian War (1754–1764) reinforced
anti-French sentiment. The conflict strengthened an age-old
English distrust of the French, and led the English to deport
French-speaking people, as in the forced migration of the Acadians
to Louisiana. The Acadian French brought a profound French
influence to the diet of settlers in Louisiana, but had little
influence outside of that region.
A striking characteristic of the diet in New England was the
seasonal availability of food. While farming in the southern
colonies took place for most of the year, northern growing seasons
were more restricted, limiting the availability of fresh fruit and
vegetables. However, the coastal colonists' close proximity to the
ocean gave them a bounty of fresh fish to supplement their diet
year-round, especially in the north.
Wheat, the grain primarily used in English bread, was almost
impossible to grow in the North, and imports of wheat were far
from cost productive. Substitutes included corn (maize) in the
form of cornmeal. The johnnycake was generally considered a poor
substitute for wheaten bread, but was accepted by residents in
both the northern and southern colonies.
Game hunting was a familiar beneficial skill to the colonists when
they immigrated to the New World. Most northern colonists depended
upon hunting, whether they hunted themselves or purchased game
from others. As a method of obtaining protein for consumption,
hunting was preferred over animal husbandry as domestic animals
were expensive and more work was required to defend domestic
animals against natural predators, American Indians or the French.
Commonly hunted game included deer, bear, buffalo and turkey. The
larger parts of the animals were roasted and served with currant
and other sauces, while smaller portions went into soups, stews,
sausages, pies and pasties.
Venison was the most popular game. The plentiful meat was often
potted or jerked, and its tripe was popular as well. Venison was
especially popular during the Thanksgiving season. Buffalo was an
important protein source until roughly 1770, when the animals were
over-hunted in the eastern United States. Bear were numerous in
the northern colonies, especially in New York, and many considered
the leg meat to be a delicacy. Bear meat was frequently jerked as
a preservation method.
In addition to game, mutton was consumed from time to time.
Keeping sheep provided wool to the household, and when a sheep
reached an age when it was unmanageable for wool production; it
could be harvested as mutton. Sheep were originally introduced to
the Americas through the Spanish in Florida. In the north, the
Dutch and English also introduced several varieties of sheep. The
casual English practice of animal husbandry allowed sheep to roam
free, consuming a variety of forage. Forage–based diets produce
meat with a characteristically strong, gamey flavor and a tough
consistency, which requires aging and slow cooking to tenderize.
Fats and oils derived from animals were used to cook many
colonial foods. Rendered pork fat, especially from bacon, was the
most popular cooking medium. Pork fat was used more often in the
southern colonies than the northern colonies as the Spanish
introduced pigs earlier to the south. Many homes kept a deerskin
sack filled with bear oil for use in cooking. Solidified bear fat
resembled shortening. The colonists enjoyed butter in cooking as
well, but it was rare prior to the American Revolution, as cattle
were not yet plentiful.
Colonists near the shores in New England often dined on fish,
crustaceans and other sea animals. Colonists ate large quantities
of turtle, a delicacy also exportable to Europe. Cod was enjoyed
in both fresh and salted form, salted cod being suitable for
long-term storage. Lobsters proliferated in the waters as well,
and were commonplace in the New England diet. Some complained
about dining on lobster and codfish too often and they were even
used as pig fodder. The highest quality cod was usually dried and
salted, however, and exported to the Mediterranean in exchange for
fruits not grown in American colonies.
Fruits and vegetables
A number of vegetables were grown in the northern colonies,
including turnips, onions, cabbage, carrots, and parsnips, along
with pulses and legumes. These vegetables stored well through the
colder months. Other vegetables, such as cucumbers, could be
salted or pickled for preservation. Agricultural success in the
northern colonies came from following the seasons, with
consumption of fresh greens only occurring during summer months.
In addition to vegetables, a large number of seasonal fruits were
Fruits not eaten in season were often preserved as jam, wet
sweetmeats, dried, or cooked into pies that could be frozen during
the winter months. Some vegetables originating in the New World,
including beans, squashes, and corn, were readily adopted and
grown by the European colonists. Pumpkins and gourds grew well in
the northern colonies and were often used for fodder for animals
in addition to human consumption.
cider was by far the most common alcoholic beverage available to
colonists. This is because apple trees could be grown
locally throughout the colonies, unlike grapes and grain which did
not grow well at all in New England. Cider was also easier to
produce than beer or wine, so it could be made by farmers for
their own consumption. Since it was not imported, it was much more
affordable to the average colonist than beer or wine. Apple
trees were planted in both Virginia and the Massachusetts Bay
Colony as early as 1629.
Most of these trees were not grafted, and thus produced apples
too bitter or sour for eating; they were planted expressly for
making cider. Before the Revolution, New Englanders consumed
large quantities of rum and beer as maritime trade provided
relatively easy access to the goods needed to produce these items.
Rum was the distilled spirit of choice as molasses, the main
ingredient, was readily available from trade with the West Indies.
In the continent's interior, colonists drank whiskey, as they
had ready access to corn and rye but did not have good access to
sugar cane. However, up until the Revolution, many colonists
considered whiskey to be a coarse alcohol unfit for human
consumption, believing that it caused the poor to become raucous
Beer was such an important consumable to Americans that they
would closely watch the stocks of barley held by farmers to ensure
quality beer production. In John Adams' correspondence with his
wife Abigail, he asked about the quality of barley crops to ensure
adequate supply for the production of beer for himself and their
friends. However, hops, essential to production of beer, did not
grow well in the colonies.
It only grew wild in the New World, and needed to be imported
from England and elsewhere. In addition to these
alcohol-based products produced in America, merchants imported
wine and brandy. Beer was not only consumed for its flavor
and alcohol content, but because it was safer to drink than water,
which often harbored disease-causing microorganisms. Even children
drank small beer.
Unlike the north, the south did not have
a central cultural origin or a single culinary tradition. The
southern colonies were also more diverse in their agricultural
products. Slaves and poor Europeans in the south shared a similar
diet, based on many of the indigenous New World crops.
The rural poor often hunted and ate squirrel, opossum, rabbit,
and other woodland animals. Salted or smoked pork often
supplemented the vegetable diet. Those on the "rice coast" ate
ample amounts of rice, while the southern poor and slaves used
cornmeal in breads and porridges. Wheat was not an option for most
poorer residents in the southern colonies.
The southern colonies can be culturally divided between the
uplands and the lowlands, and this distinction is seen in diet and
food preparation in the two regions. The diet of the uplands often
included cabbage, string beans, white potatoes, while most
affluent whites in the uplands avoided crops imported from Africa
because they were associated with, and reflected the social
inferiority of, black slaves.
Those who could grow or afford wheat often had biscuits on
their table for breakfast, along with healthy portions of pork.
Salted pork was a staple of any meal, as it was used in the
preparations of vegetables for flavor, in addition to its direct
consumption as a protein.
The coastal lowlands, particularly surrounding Charleston and
New Orleans and which also included much of the Acadian French
regions of Louisiana and the surrounding area, more varied diet
was heavily influenced by Africans and Caribbeans, as well as the
French. Rice played a large part in the diet. In addition, unlike
the uplands, the lowlands' protein came mostly from coastal
seafood and game meats. Much of the diet involved the use of
peppers, as it still does today.
Although the English had an inherent disdain for French food
as well as many of the native foods, the French had no such
disdain for indigenous foodstuffs. In fact, they expressed an
appreciation for native ingredients and dishes.