No Venison for the Minutemen? Gluten-Free Patriots? What’s for Supper After a Day Battling the Redcoats

A brief and fascinating glimpse at how the Colonists dined in April, 1775.

It’s Patriots Day and time for a history lesson of a different sort.

We know millions of details about the Shot Heard Round the World. And the brave Minutemen who grabbed their muskets to face down the advancing British columns.

But what do we know of their daily lives? After a long day spent shooting at His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, what was for supper?

THOSE FANCY IMPORTED GOODS

By the mid-1700s, imported specialty foods like coffee, tea, rum, spices and molasses, were all the rage among those who could afford them. (1)

Before we answer that question, you should know that trendy food did not originate with quiche, bottled water and organic salads in the 1970s.

By the time talk of revolution began to stir among the Colonies 200 years earlier, a consumer revolution of sorts had taken hold. Puritan America, which had embraced moderation and disdained extravagance, had already run its course.

By the early and mid-eighteenth century, fancy imported goods – including heretofore unavailable specialty foods – were all the rage among those who could afford them.

Slowly those goods began to make their way out of seaport communities like Salem and Boston into stores that dotted the New England farming countryside. Treats like coffee, tea, rum, spices and molasses to flavor food.

“Everyone wanted to have them, at least some coffee, some tea, some spices,” explains Keith Stavely, co-author (with Kathleen Fitzgerald) of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. Colonists typically traded with these stores and paid for the goods in barter with their farm surplus.

NOT THE HEARTY MEALS WE IMAGINE

But the farmers who faced down the Brits were largely subsistence farmers who rarely ran a surplus. Their diet consisted mostly of milk, beans, potatoes, and a course brown bread known as “rye and Indian bread.” This dense, heavy bread came from cornmeal, or Indian Corn, as it was known; the staple grain of native Americans. Massachusetts Colonists also mixed in rye, the European grain they brought over with them. It was gluten free of necessity (neither grain contained it).

The farmers who faced down the Brits were largely subsistence farmers. Their main daily meal usually featured milk, beans, potatoes, and a heavy, dense brown bread of rye and/or cornmeal. (2)

Their main meal was dinner – the mid-day meal. In addition to the aforementioned, they often turned to another native American staple, succotash: a type of bean porridge that evolved over time to include meat, vegetables and potato.

However, in their day, the porridge or stew included salted meat (most often pork) only if they had some.

This stew was an adaptation of the pottage they were accustomed to eating in England as well as the Indian one-pot meal. It was typically cooked over a fire since most homes could not yet afford to build a brick oven.

They consumed it day in and day out. A simple meal of bread and milk usually started and ended each day.

In the warmer months, they could get fresh game and fish from hunting.  But even by the onset of the Revolution, hunting had diminished the local deer population so dramatically that these farmers had to rely on small game. They also supplemented their dinners with berries in season and perhaps greens from their garden, which they typically boiled.

They added meat (usually salt pork) to their dinner if they were fortunate to have some. Molasses and wheat as a diet staple came decades later. (3)

Pepper and molasses were the high-end extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar of their day. Baked beans – which would have to be baked at the house of a neighbor or a tavern that possessed a rare oven – and Boston brown bread would not have been sweetened with molasses typically until nearly a century later in the 1870’s .

Our Patriot forefathers were not conspicuous consumers because they couldn’t afford it. None of which stopped the British empire from attempting to tax their colonists, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765. If that tax proved unpopular, imagine the reaction to the series of smaller taxes that followed, culminating in the famous tea tax a few years later.

SIMPLICITY REPLACES CONSUMPTION

By then, as conflict deepened between the colonies and England, so did opposition to any trace of extravagance and luxury. The pendulum had swung the other way. Suddenly, indulging in foreign teas, china ware, spices – all equated with British and foreign manufacture – were out. The “honest simplicity” of domestically produced goods was in.

There are stories of patriots trying to shame their less-conscientious brethren into giving up tea and other verboten items completely.

Once anti-British sentiment took hold, these farmers were pressured to give up minor imported 'luxuries' like tea and spices, even black pepper.

As tough as their meals were at home, it was even more difficult for the Minutemen when they began their long struggle for independence on April 19. “Johnnycakes were a type of flatbread; part of a long tradition of preparing corn meal, which they learned from the Indians. In its simplest form, you could keep it forever in your knapsack,” Stavely explains.

At least their everyday beverage was a step up. They started out drinking beer and ale, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because they could depend on it to be cleaner than water. However, apple growing proved so successful in these parts that cider soon supplanted alcohol. And apple cider took its rightful place as the drink that fueled the American revolution.

We’ll continue our tour of Colonial cookery on Independence Day.

PATRIOTS DAY RECIPE: COOK LIKE THE COLONISTS

Until then, click over to the blog of Northern Hospitality authors Stavely and Fitzgerald (here) for their Patriots Day selection: Catharine Beecher’s Beef or Veal Stewed with Apples. This is a 19th century version of a fairly typical 18th century meal.

Stowe, the older sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the author of several books about household management, was considered the Martha Stewart of her day, according to author Kathleen Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald successfully updated the recipe on their blog, (here). She reports, “Cooked slowly together, these unassuming ingredients achieve unexpected flavor and complexity.”

And pick up a copy of their wonderful book at your local bookstore, while we’re still lucky enough to have them. [Read previous post (here), and more (here)]

We owe a debt of gratitude to Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald for their wonderful insights into Colonial life discussed here.

Credits:

(1) By Hy. Sandham
Source: Idyls and Pastorals: A Home Gallery of Poetry and Art
Copyright 1886  D. Lothrop & Co., Boston
(2) The Minute Men Called to Arms, By Jennie Brownscombe.
Reproduced from the Harry O. Eichleay collection.
(thanks to Norman J. Meinert)
(3) Minute Men Leaving the Home of Captain Isaac Davis, April 19, 1775
by Arthur Fuller Davis. Owned by Acton Memorial Library.
(4) By Abel Parker
(5) Fitzgerald/Stavely
(6) Catharine Beecher, 1848. Courtesy the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

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6 Responses to No Venison for the Minutemen? Gluten-Free Patriots? What’s for Supper After a Day Battling the Redcoats

  1. Peter Gordon says:

    Wonderful stuff! Interesting how the end of the Puritan era opened up all kinds of new attitudes in colonial America including the allure of imported foods and a lust for new spices and ingredients. Looking forward to your Independence Day report, cambridgecooks …

  2. This is wonderful. The history behind the history. I suppose when you break it down (and fry it up) one reason we won our independence was food! (Or lack of it.) I assume it was not easy for the British soldiers to get the comforts of home while they were on the road, and I’m sure this put a dent in their fighting spirit. Tell and Englishman, “No tea or crumpets today Naisbit. Now go out there and shoot someone.” How could he focus! As I struggle in towns that have yet to build a Starbucks! (Whole Foods and Trader Joes may never show up in most of the America where I tour!) I can relate to his pain. The colonists chose to be abstinate for the greater good, the Brits had no choice. Thanks for the history lesson Lee. I’ll never look at porridge the same way (if I ever do look at porridge…).

  3. cooks77 says:

    Liz from Cambridge sent the following comment: “I loved your blog post on early American food! I was particularly interested in the Johnnycakes, which I ate on the beach when I lived in the Dominican Republic! In Spanish, it’s a yaniqueque, but it’s the same food. When I lived in the DR, people told me that U.S. soldiers brought Johnnycakes to the DR. But, according to Wikipedia, it was English-speaking former slaves who brought the food to the D.R. That would have been long before U.S. soldiers occupied the D.R. in 1916 or 1965.”

  4. Johnnycakes are essentially a type of unleavened flatbread, made with cornmeal. Similar types of flatbreads are found in many agrarian societies. Indeed, some culinary historians think that johnnycake derives not from Indian foodways but rather from Scottish oatcake, one of the names of which is “jannock.” So something resembling johnnycake–a cornmeal-based flatbread–could have arisen indigenously in the Caribbean. It was after all the native people of the Caribbean islands who first introduced corn (maize) to Europeans in 1492. On the other hand, cornmeal-based foods are less prominent in Caribbean cuisines than in Mexican cuisine, so it could also be that cornmeal flatbread became less important in places like the Dominican Republic and then was re-introduced from North America. The exact origins of food preparations are often hard to pin down. No one knows for sure, for instance, exactly where chowder comes from. In most cases, there are probably multiple sources and influences. As for the name, “yaniqueque,” it certainly sounds a lot like “johnnycake,” suggesting some immediate influence from the U. S.

  5. Good stuff here! I do think an interest in colonial cooking might be considered general and widespread. In fact it’s fascinating, as your readers here attest. Glad I found this on April 19 — a fine day for it. I appreciated your mentioning the Boston Brown Bread. The winter before last was a beast, and as keeping the house comfortably warm can be both expensive and painfully desiccating, I found cooking at home a great comfort as it warms, perfumes and hydrates all to a glorious and multifaceted purpose. I tried my first brown breads that year, gradually refining what you’ve accurately described as a coarse crumb loaf into my very own recipe composed of several grain flours and some bran as well as two kinds of molasses (either Crosby’s or Grandma’s, with just a taste of Plantation blackstrap for its slightly bitter edge). And what a staple it became. I must get my notes out and write it all down before I forget it if I haven’t already. It yielded two loaves of the loveliest, healthiest, densest, darkest bread ever, and next time we have a hard, cold winter it will be great if I can whip out the recipe and get it right the first time. I’d be interested in a good recipe for oat cakes, too. Those are fantastic for bringing along boating in summer as, depending on the conditions, the kiddies can get a little woozy. The oat cakes quiet them right down and they drift off happily in nappy land without any further threats to jump into the sea.

  6. EGHJ says:

    What an interesting post- Cider as the drink of the revolution! The drink of New England! I suppose craft beer and ale had to wait several long centuries before reclaiming its hold across the region- and reclaim it has. Would be fun to see some of the craft brewers pick up on the “cider” history of the area– offer their own line of Patriots Day/Independence Day cider. Quick someone tell Sam Adams!

    Can’t help but learning about history and looking to the present. Was the early colonists’ call for “the “honest simplicity” of domestically produced goods” the organic/local trend we see today version 1.0? Sweet cycles of history. From politics to fashion to food- it all comes back around… Except maybe Boston brown bread without the molasses- I’ll keep my molasses thank you.

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