Early American food and drink

These first three articles were based on notes I had rewritten in a more or less orderly fashion a couple of years ago. From here on articles will probably be on a slower schedule, depending on what else I'm doing.

A 1600’s or 1700’s American breakfast could consist of a mug of beer or cider, bannock or hoe cakes, and a bowl of porridge, and often a cornmeal pudding called mush, pap, Indian pudding or hasty pudding. The pudding would be eaten with milk poured over it or maple syrup or molasses. When butter became a possibility it was added too.
The pudding took hours to cook, it would be begun the night before, and left in a covered kettle, to simmer slowly. It had to be stirred often and the stirrers were called “porridge paddles”.
Although today we think of oatmeal porridge, there were many kinds of porridges in colonial days. Suppawn, samp, hominy and succotash came from corn. Suppawn was a thick porridge of cornmeal and milk cooked together. This was a favorite of the Dutch and southerners. Samp was a coarse hominy, made by crushing the kernels in the mortar, and boiling them up, and eaten cold or hot with milk or butter.
A favorite in New England was bean porridge. It was cooked in bake ovens in large quantities, and some of it would be set aside for freezing. When taking a journey, the family would chop off a portion to carry with them.
It became a custom to eat bean porridge with a brown bread made from corn meal on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays around noon time the village baker would go around the village gathering up the pots of beans and he would then cook them in his oven. On Sunday morning he’d return the beans with the brown bread to his customers. In some towns the pots were collected on Saturday morning, and returned in time for supper Saturday night.
Porridge could also contain meat or other vegetables. Gruel is what you ate when you were so poor that you had to water down your porridge to make it last longer.

Because water was little used as a drink in the old country, it was considered by the colonists to be unfit for consumption. The English clung to ale, the Dutch to beer, the French and Spanish to light wines. Because beer was so easy to brew from barley and hops, or from roots such as ginger, sassafras or spruce, it quickly gained popularity in the colonies.
When Harvard University opened in 1642, each student furnished his own pewter mug and wooden trencher. Breakfast was at 5 AM, consisting of bread and beer. The meal was called a bever, from old English, meaning a light meal. The second meal was served in the late afternoon. It consisted of a meat pie, hasty pudding with bacon, oatmeal porridge, a dish of eggs and beer. In 1657 the students drank 270 barrels of beer.
As time went by a third meal was added in the middle of the day. It usually consisted of meat , hasty pudding, dumplings, a vegetable and beer.
In England, during the reign of Henry VIII, his wives’ ladies in waiting had enormous daily beer rations as part of their yearly compensation.
Although the beer that was drunk in the 1500 through 1600’s had a lesser alcoholic content than the beer we’re used to today, it’s still one heck of a lot of beer.

The first apple orchards were planted shortly after 1630. With the increase in the apple crop, beer began to be supplanted by cider. A man could leave several hundred barrels of cider in his will.

The wooden plates of the early settlers were called “trenchers”. Usually 2 people would share one. If a man and woman did, they were considered to be engaged. It’s related that in one town a newcomer had individual trenchers for each member of the family, and the town magistrates reproved him for his extravagance.
Salt came in coarse form and had to be pounded before using. Salt boxes were kept by the chimney for cooking, and salt was served in a small wooden salt bowl at the table. Individual salts appeared some time later. The salt bowl was customarily used as a dividing line when company dined. Those of higher rank sat “above the salt” those of lower rank “below the salt”.
Wooden porringers were used, but some had pewter ones.
This is a miniature copy of a pewter porringer. An almost identical porringer was found in the remains of Port Royal, Jamaica, a town that sank into the sea during a 1690 earthquake.

Drink was served in a wooden noggin, or small cup, that was passed around. Some however had sets of 2 or 3 noggins that were made on a lathe.
Leather bottles and cups were in use. Sometimes the edge of the cup was bound with a band of tin, it was called a blackjack.
Sugar bowls were made of wood and could be as much as 15” wide. Maple sugar was plentiful, white sugar was sparingly used and came in a conical shape. One used sugar nippers to break pieces off, and if it was to be used in baking, one had to crush it in the mortar with a pestle. Maple syrup was the most often used sweetener wherever maple trees grew.
Pewter utensils were used in conjunction with woodenware. Many affluent households did not use wooden ware at all, but people living out in the newer settlements, away from transportation centers used it for @ 200 years. Wooden tableware was advertised for sale as late as the Revolution. Much of the colonial era pewter ware disappeared during the Revolution, having been melted down for bullets.
China did not appear in general use till the 18th c., and even then in most homes it was rarely brought out of the china closet.
Here's a typical china closet. This one was in a house built in Pennsylvania in 1756, and I've seen pictures of almost the exact same closet from several colonies and Britain.
Here's a closeup of the inside.
and here's how they would have displayed their china to guests. These closets were often found in rooms that were designated as parlors by later historians.
I suppose if you wanted to show off your fine, expensive china to someone who wasn't staying for dinner, you'd have to keep it in your parlor instead of your dining room? Actually, rooms did double duty in those days. I'll be writing about that in the future.

The first eating implement used was the spoon, often fashioned from a shell attached to a wooden handle. Sometimes nuts or gourds were used. Many people carried their own eating knife when travelling.
By the 1680’s forks with 2 tines had appeared, but they were only used to hold down the meat while it was being cut. The meat was then conveyed to the mouth on the tip of the knife.
For many years children did not sit at the table, they would stand behind their elders and be given portions of food. They were not to speak or ask for anything. Sometimes they had a small table of their own.

Parched corn was beaten to a powder and could be carried on journeys. Three spoonfuls a day, mixed with water or snow were supposed to be able to sustain a man. In the time of famine in the first years of the Pilgrim settlement, they were allotted 5 kernels of corn apiece.
Corn was used as legal currency. It was even used as a ballot in some town meetings. A kernel of corn meant yes, a bean stood for no.

In some sections of New York, Pennsylvania and the South there were bake houses, where large amounts of food could be baked.. The big ovens took a lot of work out of the kitchens. In New England there were village bake shops, and many taverns had baking ovens in their cellars.

Pumpkins, though plentiful, were not popular with the colonists. They were called “pompions”. One way of cooking them that was more popular was to cut off the stem and a bit of the top, then scoop out the seeds and the soft center part and then bake the shell in an oven. Milk would be poured inside when it was served.
Vegetables used included beans, peas, turnips, parsnips, carrots and potatoes. In the beginning people thought that if you ate potatoes, after 7 years you would die. When they were first cooked, they were served as a main dish, mixed with butter, sugar, grape juice, dates and lemons, and seasoned with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and pepper. They would then perhaps be frosted with sugar.
Potatoes were initially carried to Europe from the Americas. Some Irish immigrants brought them to New Hampshire, from where they spread to other parts. Sweet potatoes were imported from Brazil and then grown in the South, where they were just called potatoes. The tuber that we call a potato today was at that time called an Irish potato.

In time of plenty, after the settlements were well established and thriving in the later period, there was an abundance of food. One dinner report listed the following among desserts and relishes….flummery, jellies, sweetmeats of 20 sorts, trifles, whipped syllabubs, floating islands, fools, and a dessert of fruit, raisins, almonds, pears, peaches and wines.
In the early 1770’s Judge Sewall had a dinner of boiled pork, boiled pigeons, boiled venison, roast beef, roast lamb, roast fowls, salmon, oysters, fish and oil, conners (blue perch), leg of pork, hogs cheek and suet pastry, bread and butter, minced pie, apple pie, tarts, gingerbread, sugared almonds, glazed almonds, honey, curds and cream, sage cheese, green peas, barley, yoke (corn) in milk, chocolate, figs, oranges, shattucks, apples, quinces, strawberries, cherries, and raspberries. The guests numbered 25.
I was not able to find out what shattucks were.

Also in the 18th c. a record of a Philadelphia fancy dinner lists 3 tureens of turtle soup, several dishes of stew with boned turkey, roast ducks, veal and beef. There were 2 kinds of jellies, various puddings, pies, preserves, nuts, raisins, apples and oranges.

Supper was generally a light meal, perhaps Indian pudding or bread and butter with a drink, which was usually beer or cider.

Tarts and pies were popular fare. One early Thanksgiving pie consisted of bear meat and dried pumpkins, sweetened with maple sugar and a crust of cornmeal and water. A Swedish parson wrote home in 1758 in his account of settling down in Delaware, “ Apple pie is used through the whole year, and when fresh apples are no longer to be had, dried ones are used. It is the evening meal of children. Housepie, in country places, is made of apples neither peeled nor freed from their cores, and its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.”
There was a poem written sometime in the 1800's about dried apple pies.

Dried Apple Pies
I loathe, abhor, detest, despise,
Abominate dried-apple pies.
I like good bread, I like good meat
Or anything that's fit to eat;
But of all poor grub beneath the skies,
The poorest is dried apple pies.
Give me the toothache, or sore eyes,
But don't give me dried apple pies.
The farmer takes his gnarliest fruit
'Tis wormy, bitter, and hard, to boot;
He leaves the hulls to make us cough,
And don't take half the peeling off.
Then on a dirty cord 'tis strung
And in a garret window hung,
And there it serves as roost for flies,
Until it's made up into pies.
Tread on my corns, or tell me lies,
But don't pass me dried-apple pies.

Pies were also made of all kinds of berries, pumpkins and squash, mince meat and custards. Pies were made in large amounts in the late fall and set aside to freeze for the winter, as many as 40 or 50 at a time. When needed they were thawed in the tin biscuit oven. As food became plentiful pies were served at every meal, even breakfast.

There was a great deal of pickling and candying. Spices and various herbs were heavily used.

Many varied birds were eaten, also deer, squirrels, and hares. Lobsters weighing 25 pounds are recorded and there were some caught in New York Bay that were 5-6 feet long. They were so plentiful that they were considered poor man’s food. They were gathered by children who would hunt for them under rocks on the beaches.
There were crabs 1 foot long that could feed 4. Oysters were also reportedly quite large.

If you're interested in early American cooking and recipies, check these sites.
The old Foodie is full of recipies and cooking techniques used over the centuries.
Here's the Old Foodie recipe archive.
There's also the Historic Foodies' blog.

You can find some interesting articles by Victoria Rumble, the Historic Foodie, here.


  1. A shattuck is a grapefruit.


    1. It is??? I didn't know it was...(not trying to being sarctistic)

  2. What a wonderfully informative post. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. thank you! helpful for a 5th grade colonial report. Had fun reading it.


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