Harvest time during the 18th century was one of the busiest and most plentiful times of the year. What they put away for the winter would have to last them until well into spring when early vegetables would become available. Of course, the meat could be sought at any time of the year when needed. If the family could afford a goat or a cow, milk would be available as well as chickens for eggs. However, each of these has their own season and the colonial wife needed to have many skills and knowledge in the timing of food availability and storage.
What did the colonists eat? The answer depended upon where they came from and where they landed. The Spaniards settling in St. Augustine ate differently from the English people in Jamestown and so forth. Settlers brought their recipes, cooking methods and some supplies with them. Of course, eventually they used local foods introduced to them by the Native Americans. Colonial mealtimes were also different from what we know today. Breakfast was taken early if you were poor, later if you were wealthy. There was no meal called lunch. Dinner was the mid-day meal and for most people in the 18th century, it was considered the main meal of the day. Supper was the evening meal with a light selection of food.
There was no such thing as a “typical colonial meal”. Breakfast was far from juice, eggs, bacon and toast. The settlers had no time to lollygag over breakfast but went straight to their chores, gulping down a bowl of porridge that had been cooking slowly all night and some cider or beer. Other fare would be cornmeal mush and molasses with more cider or beer. By the 19th century the food took on a more orderly selection of coffee, tea or chocolate, wafers, muffins, and toast with butter.
The size of breakfast grew in direct proportion to the growth of wealth. In the northeast, pies and pastries joined the menu. In the south, breakfast became a leisurely and delightful meal although it was not served until early chores were attended to.
Dinner was early afternoon and served in the hall, a room that was reserved for family get-togethers where the fireplace had a crane for heating simple foods. The Bryan-Andrew house has a room designated as the hall with a crane typical of the time and the fireplace much smaller than the large cooking fireplace in the keeping room. The meal would consist of a stew, eaten on a wooden dish called a trencher and the inventory of Nathan Bryan lists 10 trenchers which matches he, his wife and their 8 children. When wooden trenchers were not yet available, a slab of stale bread served as a plate either eaten with the meal or later given to the domestic animals. The stews often consisted of pork, sweet corn and cabbage with other vegetables and roots when available. A typical middle class family’s dinner had two courses, the stew or other meats, and/or a meat pie which contained fruits and spices, pancakes and fritters with a variety of sauces. Soups were most likely part of the first course. Desserts were the 2nd course with an assortment of fresh, cooked or dried fruits, custards, tarts with a variety of pound cakes, gingerbread, spice and cheesecakes.
Now inasmuch as this sounds like a typical 20th century buffet, all the foods were not available at the same time and the specialties were just that, special. Supper appears to have been non-existent during the early colonial days but appeared as a late, bedtime snack made with leftovers! After all, look at what they ate for dinner!
One Massachusetts’s diary of 1797 describes roast potatoes prepared with salt but no butter with ale, cider of some variety of beer was always served. Mr. Bryan’s inventory once again gives us a clue as to what they ate with a box of 12 black bottles.
Food historians agree that Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in Hartford in 1796 is the first “American” cookbook. It was the first cookbook to include indigenous ingredients, most importantly corn meal. The first cookbook printed in the American colonies was E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife published in 1742 BUT it was a reprint of European cooking. There are three kinds of colonial/early American fare: the real thing (hearth cooking with original/fresh ingredients, modernized recipes adapted for today’s kitchens (grocery store ingredients) and contemporary interpretations served in fine 18th century style eating establishments such as Colonial Williamsburg.
The first kind is the most fun and if done with guests, a “crowd” pleaser. Ironware is available in any complete kitchen shop and if you browse the antique shops, you can find “clean” ironware most likely from the 19th century. By clean I mean, no holes in the iron, no crevices you can’t clean thoroughly and not large, as they get heavy with food. Now keep in mind, the women of yesteryear carried their kettles from place to place so if you want to really follow their lead…buy a large one. But, don’t blame me if you need help taking it off the grate.
So you make a fire in your fireplace, enjoy your guests while the logs make mounds of hot coals. Once you have the coals, move them into several piles. While at the kitchen store, find some iron trivets (not painted or decorated) to set your kettles on. Place the trivets and kettles on these wonderful, glowing embers. I would start with something simple that will heat rather quickly so your guests don’t starve waiting for their colonial meal. Soup works well so here goes!
4 T butter
1 cup finely chopped celery
3 T finely cut chives
1 T chervil
1 tsp. dried tarragon
1 qt. chicken stock
Freshly ground pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
In a heavy pot, melt butter, add celery and chives and cook for 5 minutes stirring frequently until they are soft, not brown. Stir in chervil and tarragon and cook 1 minute. Add chicken stock and a few grindings of pepper and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with nutmeg. Serve with a bowl of cheese.
Thomas Jefferson’s Marinated Asparagus
A note here. After his visits to France as an ambassador, Thomas Jefferson was enthralled by asparagus and brought plants to his home at Monticello. He grew many, many gardens full of this vegetable.
Here is his recipe:
1 ½ lbs. asparagus, stems peeled and trimmed
2 T red wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
pinch of fresh thyme
pinch of chopped, fresh parsley
1 egg hard cooked and chopped
½ small red onion finely chopped
1 T fine capers, drained
salt and freshly ground white pepper
Wash the asparagus and trim the tough ends. Boil them in 2 qts. lightly salted water for 2-3 minutes until tender. Drain and let cool. Whisk the remaining ingredients until well blended. Place the asparagus on a platter and pour the mixture evenly over them. Let them marinate for a few minutes. Garnish with additional chopped egg and parsley.
4 lbs. cod or haddock
2 ½ cups stewed tomatoes
4 cups potatoes cut in ¾ “ cubes
3 T butter
1/1/2 in cube of pork fat
2/3 cup cracker crumbs
1 sliced onion
salt & pepper
Fry fat until crispy and remove, sauté potatoes in fat and butter with sliced onion until potatoes are cooked through but not mushy. Lightly simmer fish in water to cover, until tender. Put all ingredients in a large kettle adding tomatoes, cracker crumbs, salt and pepper. Simmer until heated through serve with crackers.
One quart of milk, 1 pint of Indian meal (corn meal) 4 eggs, 4 spoons of flour, little salt, beat together, baked on gridles or fry in a dry pan or baked in a pan which has been rub’d with suet, lard or butter. This recipe is directly from Amelia Simmons’ book, spelling and grammar as was.