Laura Dean Bennett
American cooking, or “cookery” as it was called in the 18th century, was a world away from the culinary delights we enjoy today.
For one thing, available ingredients were limited to whatever meat the colonists could hunt or raise themselves, and vegetables and fruits that they could grow in their gardens or forage.
There were precious luxury items like coffee, sugar and citrus fruit available to a fortunate few but, by and large, Americans’ diet in the 13 colonies during the American Revolution was not nearly as varied as ours is today.
The healthfulness of drinking water, which most of us take for granted, was certainly up for debate in the colonies. In England, Scotland, Ireland and Europe – where most American colonists hailed from – water was rarely the beverage of choice.
The British drank ale, the Dutch drank beer and the Spanish and the French drank wine.
Beer was a favorite drink in the colonies. It was easy to brew from barley and hops or from sassafras, spruce or ginger roots – all of which were easily found in the New World.
But cider soon rivaled beer as the most popular drink in the colonies, as apple trees had been planted as soon as the first settlers arrived, providing for ample cider production by the early 1700s.
For the most part, life in the colonies was hard and, undoubtedly, not nearly as romantic as many songs and stories would have us believe.
But once the colonies were well established, there was, at least in times of plenty, more than sufficient food available.
An elegant meal in the colonies might feature a turtle or seafood soup and a game stew featuring wild turkey, pigeon, duck, squirrel or venison and a pork dish.
In one notable example of seeming extravagance, lobster was not the delicacy in the 18th century as it is today.
From New England to Virginia, lobsters were frequently served.
Lobsters that were five-to-six feet long, weighing 25 pounds, were recorded as being regularly caught in New York Bay.
Boiled vegetables accompanied most meals. Peas, beans, parsnips, carrots, corn, turnips and cabbage were grown in most gardens.
Although potatoes had originally come from the New World to Europe, they had been used as fodder for animals in Britain and Europe for so long that it took a while to prove themselves worthy of the plate.
It also took a while for pumpkins to be welcome on the table.
There would have always been a pudding or two, perhaps a suet pastry and a selection of jellies, pies and preserves on the table.
As a final course, there might be nuts, berries, pears, peaches and apples, in season.
Fruit was dried and vegetables were pickled for consumption in winter.
Salt came in course form and sometimes in chunks. It had to be pounded for cooking or table use. To keep it dry, salt boxes were kept by the chimney.
The expressions, “above the salt” and “below the salt” referred to where one was seated in relation to the table’s salt bowl. Company, or those of high rank, sat above the salt while family or low ranking persons were typically seated below the salt.
Bread – made from flour or cornmeal and served with or without butter – had become a staple at most meals by the early 18th century.
Children weren’t seated at the table with the family as they are now.
They might stand behind the adults during a meal and be given an occasional bite of food or they would be seated at a table of their own, away from their elders.
In any case, they were never to speak – hence the old saying, “Children are to be seen and not heard.”
The first eating utensils in the colonies were spoons. Some were made from shells attached to a wooden handle. There were wooden utensils, including two-tine wooden forks used to hold meat while it was being cut with a knife. There were wooden plates called “trenchers” and wooden cups called “noggins.”
By the time of the Revolution, many families had graduated from wooden tableware to pewter, and some very wealthy homes even used silver utensils.
But the popularity of wooden tableware persisted long after the war, one reason being that during the war, a lot of pewter tableware had been melted down for bullets.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July and our imaginations thrill to the storied days of yesteryear, many of us find ourselves pining for a glimpse into the life of our colonial forbearers.
The following recipes are from “Country Cooking,” published by Time Life Books. It is available at McClintic Library.
Virginia Chicken Pudding
This colonial dish was one of President James Monroe’s favorites. The term “pudding” refers to Yorkshire Pudding in which an egg-rich batter is poured over the chicken, which is baked until the chicken is done and the “pudding” is golden brown.
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
2 1/2 pounds of chicken parts, rinsed and patted dry
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup peanut oil
1 cup milk
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley, for garnish
In shallow bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the flour, 1/2 tsp. of the salt and the pepper. Add chicken and dredge well in the seasoned flour.
In a large skillet, melt the butter in the oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and fry until golden brown, about five minutes per side. Drain on paper.
Preheat oven to 450º.
Transfer chicken to buttered shallow baking dish big enough to hold chicken snugly in one layer.
In a bowl, combine remaining 1 1/4 cups flour and 1/2 tsp. salt. In another bowl, beat eggs until frothy and add milk. Beat egg-milk mixture into the flour and stir until batter is smooth.
Pour batter evenly over chicken and place immediately into oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Lower temperature to 350º and bake for 20-to-25 minutes longer or until pudding puffs up and browns.
Serve the chicken hot, sprinkled with parsley.
Powerful libations have long been with Americans, ever since the formation of the 13 colonies – long before – and after – the Revolutionary War.
In medium to large punch bowl, combine 2 cups whole strawberries, one thin-sliced orange, 1/2 cup pineapple, cut in chunks, 2 cups dark rum and 2 cups bourbon.
Let stand overnight in refrigerator.
Pour mixture in punch bowl and add 3 cups chilled sparkling cider, 1 bottle chilled brut champagne and a block of ice.
Makes about 3 quarts.
Serve and let the patriotic celebration begin.