Evolution of Food: Colonial North America

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What and how did food sources, its availability and sustainability changed from the 16th century until just before the Civil War? What foods were introduced by the settlers to Native Americans and vice versa? The food sources of the Native Americans were said to be given by their gods and they were placed where they are specifically by their gods as well, with abundant food and water. They had all that they needed and were living in peace with nature. There was a sense of balance between every living thing that was in North America at that time.

North America was untouched for the most part of the 1500’s to the early 1600’s. Most of the landscapes remained fertile and free-growing, only a small portion of which were cultivated to plant food for the native inhabitants that live there, they were predominantly gathering foods from trees and plants surrounding their villages. The Native Americans also hunted what animals were present as far as they can hunt without compromising the freshness of the kill, but they do have some developed techniques in cookery: “Native American tribes across the country lived in different ways, but most grew corn, beans, and squashes, and hunted both large and small animals. They gathered wild fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, and plants.

Obviously, the wild foods they used depended a great deal on where they lived. They developed grinding and pounding technology to make flour from grains, seeds, and nuts, and to extract oil. They had cooking containers that allowed them to heat foods in liquid, and they had methods of roasting and baking. They also had food preservation techniques and developed portable foods for traveling (Oliver, 2005).” Rosa also noted that: “There are several varieties of vegetables, nuts, mammals and fish that are indigenous to North America, most notably beans, corn and squash (the “Three Sisters” upon which several Native American diets were based) and the American bison. Some of these foods also had “Old World” varieties (strawberries). Indigenous recipes included succotash, corncakes, and baked squash (Olver, 2015).” The villages were situated far from each other that the villagers had abundant supplies without destroying or diminishing their resources.

The Native Americans were also farmers: “In the South, cornfields belonged to and were worked by women, but men helped clear land and harvest the crop. Indians cultivated fields with a hoe and a digging stick, rather than a plow. Townspeople worked the earth into hills, and then planted the “three sisters” in the same hill. The corn stalks supported the beans, and the squash ran between the hills. Because the fields were located in the lowlands, often at some distance from the town, they were guarded from birds and animals by children and old people perched on elevated platforms, especially as harvest neared (Hall, 2009).” The Native Americans vary per region and their food source was dictated by the region they were in. The climate limited their food sources and sustainability, food was abundant from spring to early fall but was scarce during winter and crops could not grow during these harsh times, most especially with northern most places. The mid to southern areas did not really have to struggle with this, especially when the animals would migrate south for the winter, there would be an influx of animals to be hunted and the Native Americans were prepared for it as well.

Although the “three sisters” were always a staple for them, their diets differ from what was available for them to either forage, hunt or fish as this article states: “Most sources oversimplify the topic of Native American foods, concentrating primarily on the Three Sisters: maize, squash and beans. Native American foodways is not one cuisine, but several. Foods, procurement methods, cooking techniques, dining customs, and religious observances varied greatly from tribe to tribe. Native Americans depended upon local foods. Peoples living in the northeast ate very different foods (maple syrup) from those living in the Great Plains (buffalo), southwest (cactus) and Pacific Northwest (salmon). Agricultural communities had different food issues from nomadic peoples. Peoples living in cold climates employed different preservation techniques from those living in the deserts (Olver, 2015).” This was also the start of trades between villages, the different tribes had different resources which they can trade and take advantage off.

During the 1500’s in Europe, the food scene has barely changed: “The Tudor period was a time of great creativity, and one of intellectual, political and religious transformation. In the kitchen, however, change came more slowly. Bread, meat, fish, pottages and wine continued to form the basis of most diets. People still avoided uncooked fruit and vegetables, believing them to carry disease. Indeed, during the plague of 1569 it became illegal to sell fresh fruit (1500s Food, 2006).” And also seen in this culinary compilation “Beef stew, Chicken in Ale broth, English custard tart, Hen in broth, Ginger bread, etc. (Baldassano).” that the Europeans where used to eating lavishly and exquisitely prepared meals during the 1500’s. The Royalty and rich people would even endure waiting for hours for a well prepared feast. The king always hosted large banquets and served only the best for his guests. As well documented, the poor eat what they can get from anywhere they can; the gap between the rich and the poor was so wide that there was no to few middle class. This era was also the time where cook books were published: “The late 1500s was the first time that cookery books began to be published on a regular basis.

Many of these books concentrated on the ‘secrets’ of the wealthy – the confectioneries and remedies hidden in the closets of noblewomen, a powerful selling point in this period. Increasingly these books were aimed at women, as is revealed by titles such as The Good Huswifes Jewell. However, it is estimated that only between 5 and 10 percent of women were literate at this time – add to this the fact that the books were expensive commodities (as were the ingredients for the recipes), and it seems likely that the market for these books was confined to a small affluent area of society (1500s Food, 2006).” The different major powers in Europe were in need of expansion and new conquests. They set their eyes towards the Americas. They prepared for their expeditions differently, some bringing the bare essentials, others foreseeing what they would need to settle in their new found lands. The Spaniards were the first to ever set foot in North America was Spain, southern part of North America, Florida. That is why we see their influences in food even today in parts of Florida’s coasts. This was shortly followed by the British, further north off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay.

When the first ship arrived in Jamestown and a permanent colony was established, the Native Americans were exposed to European cuisines and diseases among others. The colonists tried their best to replicate what they were used to eating back in Europe. This was a huge challenge, especially with the first waves of settlers; this was due to the availability of resources. They brought with them supplies but did not anticipate that the ingredients they needed were not all available in this new land. As soon as their supplies has run its course, they had to work with what they can find and create a dish as close to what they are used to with ingredients found in their new environment. Some also experimented, which was the discoveries of some of the American foods of today, and settled with what they came up with. Not until the third quarter of the 17th century that agriculture was in full bloom and European influences were again seen in Northern America: “Lord Baltimore of England founded the colony of Maryland. He was Catholic and drew up a charter allowing the establishment of churches of all religions. By the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Virginia and Maryland had established a strong economic and social structure; they were agrarian societies with expansive farmlands along the region’s rivers. The planters of the tidewater region, using abundant slave labor, had large houses, an aristocratic way of life, and a desire to follow the art and culture of Europe (Jaffee, 2004).” Gone are the days of just gathering and hunting, now there is agriculture in the mix and different varieties of vegetables, spices and fruits from other parts of the world are coming in the continent and it is dramatically changing the taste of food.

The colonies were planting crops that are not native to Northern America. Slowly but surely the European way of life was influencing and reverse acculturation process has emerged, instead of the colonies being acculturated by the Native Americans, the Native Americans were being influenced and are adapting the European way of life, sometimes even forcefully, conversion to Catholicism is an example. This development has impacted food differently in different parts of Northern America. Let us take a look at what people in Massachusetts were eating during this period: “At home the thrifty New Englanders found dozens of uses for cod, either fresh or dried or salted. They used cod to make fish cakes, chowder, boiled dinners, and fish hash. The hash was served at breakfast with oatmeal, eggs, hot bread, and sometimes fried ham. In the 1700s a typical Sunday breakfast in Boston consisted of codfish cakes or creamed codfish, baked beans, and brown bread…Chowder is another food attributed to Massachusetts…The cranberry is one of the few native American fruits, along with the blueberry and some grape varieties.

Long before the pilgrims arrived, the Massachuset Indians combined crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat to make pemmican…Cranberry cultivation began in Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1816… (Lee, 1992 / Olver, 2015).” Things have changed during the 17th century, it was considered the golden age, with abundant supply of food, the increase in demand and consumption increased with it. The Native Americans used clay pots to cook and when the colonies begin settling in areas near the shorelines of North America, the brought with them metal cookware, this too changed the taste of traditional foods and the preparation was cut short, making dishes that used to take the entire day to cook into half that. The very first cook book was written by Amelia Simmons and published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. Advance in preservation and shelf life has also changed:”Colonial Americans employed a variety of effective food preservation techniques, many of them dating back to ancient times. Salting, smoking and potting were most often used for meats; pickling, drying, and cold (basement/root cellar) storage for eggs, vegetables, and fruits. Straw was recognized as a good insulator and was frequently used to protect delicate foods from extreme temperatures [(2) Olver, 2015].” Food preparation was becoming more elaborate and complicated to make in colonial North America. Food and drinks were also considered as medication due to the rise of medical epidemics: “In colonial North America, food and drink also medicated. In the face of devastating epidemics such as smallpox or more mundane complaints like stomach ailments and earaches, Americans treated themselves with butter, salt, rum, sugar, nutmeg, crab’s claws, and other foods that in another setting would have looked like elements of a typical meal (McCulla, 2016).”

I think that the evolution of food from the early Native Americans up to the arrival of the colonists that have settled in North America and called it home was so wide apart that, time wise, there could have been so many changes, but instead we see that both the Native Americans and the settlers shared in evolving food in their time lines together. It was a push and pull battle between the old or traditional ways of food and the new and modern colonial ways with influences from all over the world due to settlers colliding. This in turn slowed the food evolution, making adaptation and adoption more prominent than discovering new foods. This does not mean that there were no “new food” discoveries, what I am saying is that there should have been more. Just like what is happening this day and age, food fusion will be forever be recognized. Like: Mexican-American, Filipino- African-American, fusions for examples. They are happening too fast that they are forgotten easily as well. Come to think about it, it was a slow and steady adoption process that made the dished before still present in this time line.

For the Native Americans its adaptation to new crops and cooking styles, techniques and tools brought about by settlers while maintaining their traditions and trying to hold on to it. Adopting what they can without losing their traditions and identities to make it easier for them to prepare their foods. For the settlers, adaptation to what supplies were available in their surroundings and making use of it while making what they were used to serving when they were still in Europe and incorporating them with influences from other peoples that were present at that time and adopting them as their own. In Virginia, Nobel men and their servants were the primary settlers and they were much happier in their new surroundings due to the abundance of resources, thus both rich and poor ate meat at least once a day. Cooking styles were frying with animal fat, simmering, and roasting with lots of herbs and spices from Africa; The rich adopting slave cooking as their own and feasting was practiced for both rich and poor, more frequent for the former than the later. In New England, food preparations were merely for sustenance and not lavish feasts, even with abundance of game animals and fish, this may be is due to their conservative religious views. Baking, stewing / boiling and sautéing are their main cooking techniques in this area. They do not incorporate seasonings in their cooking compared to other colonies.

In Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic regions were similar to the puritans of New England; I think they were stricter in terms of their practices, like “not eating or drinking moderately was punishable with public acts of criticism.” Many Quakers boycott products obtained by sin, which made consumption of game animals lesser than assumed due to their abundance. Typical cooking methods were boiling and simmering. They did have some German influences in their cooking styles from pudding making to their dumplings. The poorer people that traveled across for a better future settled on the back country of America. They ate grits and oats and made it popular as a breakfast meal. They have been accustomed to hardship that settling in the shadows of progress here in America was better than their life in Britain. Feasting, although seldom, was practiced if they can and when there is availability of resources, dish wares were tins instead of glass or clay since they move a lot, they tend to easily break.

As I have read these many articles about their food and how it has progressed or change, I realized that it is not always true that abundance in resources is the only the basis of diets back then but their strong beliefs had a major impact on what they ate and how they prepare or eat their foods back then. It also proves that although resources do change, our culture and taste in food will always be a connection to our past. It may not be genetics but there will always be a food that connects us to our ancestors whether we know it or not. I for example: I am a Native Igorot, a tribe found in the Northern part of Luzon, Philippines. We practice different styles of cooking which some, we cannot do unless in our tribe or the privacy of our home, but back home we do it publicly and they are understood as tradition, out of respect for other people, we make do with what we can while we are here in the U.S. That does not diminish our bond with our tribe. Even those children born here in the U.S. when brought to the Philippines and they experience the old traditions are struck with a sense of belongingness when they leave. Evolution of food during the colonial period was a turning point for the Native Americans as well as the settlers because it was a new age of discoveries on both side of the spectrum co-mingling with each other and making it as their own. Just like the colonies fighting for their liberty from the Empire, food as well was trying to be unique but with a hint of history in the after taste. In fact even today, we can see the influences of the past still in our foods served or cooked in a modern world. Adaptation and Adoption is the main key to evolution.


Primary References

  1. Beuckelaer, Joachim. “Kitchen Scene 1566.” Oil Painting, Museum the Louvre, Paris, France, 1566, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. https://www.louvre.fr/en/moteur-de-recherche-oeuvres?f_search_art=Joachim+Beuckelaer.
  2. Oliver, Sandra L. Food in Colonial and Federal America. Greenwood Press, 2005.
  3. Simmons, Amelia, and American Imprint collection (Library of Congress). “Image 3 of Page View (1796).” The Library of Congress, CF. Bitting, K.G. Gastronomic Bib., https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbc0001.2015amimp26967/?sp=3.

Secondary References

  1. Olver, Lynne. The Food Timeline–USA Food History Sources, 6 Jan. 2015, http://foodtimeline.org/usa.html.
  2. Hall, Rosa Newman. “Native American Foods.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, 14 May 2009, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2150.
  3. “1500s Food.” The British Library – the British Library, 8 Aug. 2006, http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1500s2/1550s2.html.
  4. Baldassano, Cassandra, and Karen Macek. “15th Century.” Medieval Cuisine, http://www.medievalcuisine.com/Euriol/my-recipes/recipes-by-time-period/15th-century.
  5. Jaffee, David. “Religion and Culture in North America, 1600–1700.” Metmuseum.org, Oct. 2004, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/recu/hd_recu.htm.
  6. Olver, Lynne. The Food Timeline–USA Food History Sources, 3 Jan. 2015, http://www.foodtimeline.org/statefoods.html#colonialma
  7. McCulla, Theresa. “Food in Colonial North America.” Colonial North America at Harvard Library, 19 Nov. 2016, https://colonialnorthamerica.library.harvard.edu/spotlight/cna/feature/food-in-colonial-north-america#_edn30.
  8. Harbury, Katharine E. Colonial Virginias Cooking Dynasty. University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
  9. Fischer, Kirsten. Colonial American History. Blackwell, pp. 349–354, 539, 608-612, 2002.

Cite this paper

Evolution of Food: Colonial North America. (2020, Sep 04). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/evolution-of-food-colonial-north-america/

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