Colonial Meat and Drink
MEAT AND DRINK from Home Life in Colonial Days, by Alice Morse Earle, 1898
The food brought in ships from Europe to the colonists was naturally limited by the imperfect methods of transportation which then existed. Nothing like refrigerators were known; no tinned foods were even thought of; ways of packing were very crude and careless; so the kinds of provisions which would stand the long voyage on a slow sailing-vessel were very few. The settlers turned at once, as all settlers in a new land should, to the food-supplies found in the new home; of these the three most important ones were corn, fish, and game. I have told of their plenty, their value, and their use. There were many other bountiful and good foods, among them pumpkins or pompions, as they were at first called.
The pumpkin has sturdily kept its own place on the New England farm, varying in popularity and use, but always of value as easy of growth, easy of cooking, and easy to keep in a dried form. Yet the colonists did not welcome the pumpkin with eagerness, even in times of great want. They were justly rebuked for their indifference and dislike by Johnson in his Wonder-working Providence, who called the pumpkin “a fruit which the Lord fed his people with till corn and cattle increased”; and another pumpkin-lover referred to “the times wherein old Pompion was a saint.” One colonial poet gives the golden vegetable this tribute:—
“We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undone.”
I am very sure were I living on dried corn and scant shell-fish, as the Pilgrims were forced to do, I should have turned with delight to “pompion-sause” as a change of diet. Stewed pumpkins and pumpkin bread were coarse ways of using the fruit for food. Pumpkin bread—made of half Indian meal—was not very pleasing in appearance. A traveller in 1704 called it an “awkward food.” It is eaten in Connecticut to this day. The Indians dried pumpkins and strung them for winter use, and the colonists followed the Indian custom.
In Virginia pumpkins were equally plentiful and useful. Ralph Hamor, in his True Discourse, says they grew in such abundance that a hundred were often observed to spring from one seed. The Virginia Indians boiled beans, peas, corn, and pumpkins together, and the colonists liked the dish. In the trying times at “James-Citty,” the plentiful pumpkins played a great part in providing food-supplies for the starving Virginians.
Squashes were also native vegetables. The name is Indian. To show the wonderful and varied way in which the English spelt Indian names let me tell you that Roger Williams called them askutasquashes; the Puritan minister Higginson, squantersquashes; the traveller Josselyn, squontorsquashes, and the historian Wood, isquoukersquashes.
Potatoes were known to New Englanders, but were rare and when referred to were probably sweet potatoes. It was a long time before they were much liked. A farmer at Hadley, Massachusetts, had what he thought a very large crop in 1763—it was eight bushels. It was believed by many persons that if a man ate them every day, he could not live seven years. In the spring all that were left on hand were carefully burned, for many believed that if cattle or horses ate these potatoes they would die. They were first called, when carried to England, Virginia potatoes; then they became much liked and grown in Ireland; then the Irish settlers in New Hampshire brought them back to this continent, and now they are called, very senselessly, Irish potatoes. Many persons fancied the balls were what should be eaten, and said they “did not much desire them.” A fashionable way of cooking them was with butter, sugar, and grape-juice; this was mixed with dates, lemons, and mace; seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper; then covered with a frosting of sugar—and you had to hunt well to find the potato among all these other things.
In the Carolinas the change in English diet was effected by the sweet potato. This root was cooked in various ways: it was roasted in the ashes, boiled, made into puddings, used as a substitute for bread, made into pancakes which a foreigner said tasted as though composed of sweet almonds; and in every way it was liked and was so plentiful that even the slaves fed upon it.
Beans were abundant, and were baked by the Indians in earthen pots just as we bake them to-day. The settlers planted peas, parsnips, turnips, and carrots, which grew and thrived. Huckleberries, blackberries, strawberries, and grapes grew wild. Apple-trees were planted at once, and grew well in New England and the Middle states. Twenty years after the Roman Catholic settlement of Maryland the fruitful orchards were conspicuously flourishing.
Johnson, writing in 1634, said that all then in New England could have apple, pear, and quince tarts instead of pumpkin-pies. They made apple-slump, apple-mose, apple-crowdy, apple-tarts, mess apple-pies, and puff apple-pies. The Swedish parson, Dr. Acrelius, writing home in 1758 an account of the settlement of Delaware, said:—
“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. House-pie, 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.”
The making of a portion of the autumn’s crop of apples into dried apples, apple-sauce, and apple-butter for winter was preceded in many country homes by an apple-paring. The cheerful kitchen of a farmhouse was set with an array of empty pans, tubs, and baskets; of sharp knives and heaped-up barrels of apples. A circle of laughing faces completed the scene, and the barrels of apples were quickly emptied by the many skilful hands. The apples intended for drying were strung on linen thread and hung on the kitchen and attic rafters. The following day the stout crane in the open fireplace was hung with brass kettles which were filled with the pared apples, sweet and sour in proper proportions, the sour at the bottom since they required more time to cook. If quinces could be had, they were added to give flavor, and molasses, or boiled-down pungent “apple-molasses,” was added for sweetening. As there was danger that the sauce would burn over the roaring logs, many housewives placed clean straw at the bottom of the kettle to keep the apples from the fiercest heat. Days were spent in preparing the winter’s stock of apple-sauce, but when done and placed in barrels in the cellar, it was always ready for use, and when slightly frozen was a keen relish. Apple-butter was made of the pared apples boiled down with cider.
Wheat did not at first ripen well, so white bread was for a time rarely eaten. Rye grew better, so bread made of “rye-an’-injun,” which was half rye-meal, half corn-meal, was used instead. Bake-shops were so many in number in all the towns that it is evident that housewives in towns and villages did not make bread in every home as to-day, but bought it at the baker’s.
At the time when America was settled, no European peoples drank water as we do to-day, for a constant beverage. The English drank ale, the Dutch beer, the French and Spanish light wines, for every-day use. Hence it seemed to the colonists a great trial and even a very dangerous experiment to drink water in the New World. They were forced to do it, however, in many cases; and to their surprise found that it agreed with them very well, and that their health improved. Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, who was a most sensible and thoughtful man, soon had water used as a constant drink by all in his household.
As cows increased in number and were cared for, milk of course was added to the every-day fare. Rev. Mr. Higginson wrote in 1630 that milk cost in Salem but a penny a quart; while another minister, John Cotton, said that milk and ministers were the only things cheap in New England. At that time milk cost but a penny and a quarter a quart in old England.
Milk became a very important part of the food of families in the eighteenth century. In 1728 a discussion took place in the Boston newspapers as to the expense of keeping a family “of middling figure.” These writers all named only bread and milk for breakfast and supper. Ten years later a minister, calculating the expenses of his family, set down bread and milk for both breakfast and supper. Milk and hasty pudding, milk and stewed pumpkin, milk and baked apples, milk and berries, were variations. In winter, when milk was scarce, sweetened cider diluted with water was used instead. Sometimes bread was soaked with this mixture. It is said that children were usually very fond of it.
As comparatively few New England families in the seventeenth century owned churns, I cannot think that many made butter; of course families of wealth ate it, but it was not common as to-day. In the inventories of the property of the early settlers of Maine there is but one churn named. Butter was worth from threepence to sixpence a pound. As cattle increased the duties of the dairy grew, and soon were never-ceasing and ever-tiring. The care of cream and making of butter was in the eighteenth century the duty of every good wife and dame in the country, and usually in the town.
Though the shape and ease of action of churns varied, still butter-making itself varied little from the same work to-day. Several old-time churns are shown, the revolving one being the most unusual.
Cheese was plentiful and good in all the Northern colonies. It was also an unending care from the time the milk was set over the fire to warm and then to curdle; through the breaking of the curds in the cheese-basket; through shaping into cheeses and pressing in the cheese-press, placing them on the cheese-ladders, and constantly turning and rubbing them. An old cheese-press, cheese-ladder, and cheese-basket from Deerfield Memorial Hall are shown in the illustration.
In all households, even in those of great wealth and many servants, assistance was given in all housewifery by the daughters of the household. In the South it was chiefly by superintendence and teaching through actual exposition the negro slaves; in the North it was by the careful performance of the work.
The manuscript cooking receipt-book of many an ancient dame shows the great care they took in family cooking. English methods of cooking at the time of the settlement of this country were very complicated and very laborious.
It was a day of hashes, ragouts, soups, hotch-pots, etc. There were no great joints served until the time of Charles the First. In almost every sixteenth-century receipt for cooking meat, appear some such directions as these: “Y-mynce it, smyte them on gobbets, hew them on gobbets, chop on gobbets, hew small, dyce them, skern them to dyce, kerf it to dyce, grind all to dust, smyte on peces, parcel-hem; hew small on morselyen, hack them small, cut them on culpons.” Great amounts of spices were used, even perfumes; and as there was no preservation of meat by ice, perhaps the spices and perfumes were necessary.
Of course the colonists were forced to adopt simpler ways of cooking, but as towns and commerce increased there were many kitchen duties which made much tedious work. Many pickles, spiced fruits, preserves, candied fruits and flowers, and marmalades were made.
Preserving was a very different art from canning fruit to-day. There were no hermetically sealed jars, no chemical methods, no quick work about it. Vast jars were filled with preserves so rich that there was no need of keeping the air from them; they could be opened, that is, the paper cover taken off, and used as desired; there was no fear of fermentation, souring, or moulding.
The housewives pickled samphire, fennel, purple cabbage, nasturtium-buds, green walnuts, lemons, radish-pods, barberries, elder-buds, parsley, mushrooms, asparagus, and many kinds of fish and fruit. They candied fruits and nuts, made many marmalades and quiddonies, and a vast number of fruit wines and cordials. Even their cakes, pies, and puddings were most complicated, and humble households were lavish in the various kinds they manufactured and ate.
They collared and potted many kinds of fish and game, and they salted and soused. Salted meat was eaten, and very little fresh meat; for there were no means of keeping meat after it was killed. Every well-to-do family had a “powdering-tub,” in which meat was “powdered,” that is, salted and pickled. Many families had a smoke-house, in which beef, ham, and bacon were smoked.
Perhaps the busiest month of the year was November,—called “killing time.” When the chosen day arrived, oxen, cows, and swine which had been fattened for the winter’s stock were slaughtered early in the morning, that the meat might be hard and cold before being put in the pickle. Sausages, rolliches, and head-cheese were made, lard tried out, and tallow saved.
A curious and quaint domestic implement or utensil found hanging on the walls of some kitchens was what was known as a sausage-gun. One here is shown with the piston detached, and also ready for use. The sausage-meat was forced out through the nozzle into the sausage-cases. A simpler form of sausage-stuffer has also been seen, much like a tube-and-piston garden-syringe; though I must add a suspicion which has always lingered in my mind that the latter utensil was really a syringe-gun, such as once was used to disable humming-birds by squirting water upon them.
Sausage-meat was thus prepared in New York farmhouses. The meat was cut coarsely into half-inch pieces and thrown into wooden boxes about three feet long and ten inches deep. Then its first chopping was by men using spades which had been ground to a sharp edge.
There were many families that found all their supply of sweetening in maple sugar and honey; but housewives of dignity and elegance desired to have some supply of sugar, certainly to offer visitors for their dish of tea. This sugar was always loaf-sugar, and truly loaf-sugar; for it was purchased ever in great loaves or cones which averaged in weight about nine to ten pounds apiece. One cone would last thrifty folk for a year. This pure clear sugar-cone always came wrapped in a deep blue-purple paper, of such unusual and beautiful tint and so color-laden that in country homes it was carefully saved and soaked, to supply a dye for a small amount of the finest wool, which was used when spun and dyed for some specially choice purpose. The cutting of this cone of sugar into lumps of equal size and regular shape was distinctly the work of the mistress and daughters of the house. It was too exact and too dainty a piece of work to be intrusted to clumsy or wasteful servants. Various simply shaped sugar-shears or sugar-cutters were used. An ordinary form is shown in the illustration. I well recall the only family in which I ever saw this solemn function of sugar-cutting take place—it was about thirty years ago. An old Boston East India merchant, one of the last to cling to a residence in what is known now as the “Burnt District,” always desired (and his desire was law) to use these loaves of sugar in his household. I don’t know where he got them so long after every one else had apparently ceased buying them—he may have specially imported them; at any rate he had them, and to the end of her life it was the morning duty of his wife “to cut the sugar.” I can see my old cousin still in what she termed her breakfast room, dressed very handsomely, standing before a bare mahogany table on which a maid placed the considerable array of a silver salver without legs, which was set on a folded cloth and held the sugar-loaf and the sugar-cutter; and another salver with legs that bore various bowls and one beautiful silver sugar-box which was kept filled high for her husband’s toddy. It seemed an interminably tedious work to me and a senseless one, as I chafingly waited for the delightful morning drive in delightful Boston. It was in this household that I encountered the sweetest thing of my whole life; I have written elsewhere its praises in full; a barrel, a small one, to be sure, but still a whole teak-wood barrel full of long strings of glistening rock-candy. I had my fill of it at will, though it was not kept as a sweetmeat, but was a kitchen store having a special use in the manufacture of rich brandy sauces for plum puddings, and of a kind of marchepane ornamentation for desserts.
All the spices used in the household were also ground at home, in spice-mortars and spice-mills. These were of various sizes, including the pepper-mills, which were set on the table at meal-times, and the tiny ornamental graters which were carried in the pocket.
The entire food of a household was the possible production of a farm. In a paper published in the American Museum in 1787 an old farmer says:—
“At this time my farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce of it, and left me one year with another one hundred and fifty silver dollars, for I never spent more than ten dollars a year which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink or wear was bought, as my farm provided all.”
The farm food was not varied, it is true, as to-day; for articles of luxury came by importation. The products of tropical countries, such as sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, spices, found poor substitutes in home food-products. Dried pumpkin was a poor sweetening instead of molasses; maple sugar and honey were not esteemed as was sugar; tea was ill-replaced by raspberry leaves, loosestrife, hardhack, goldenrod, dittany, blackberry leaves, yeopon, sage, and a score of other herbs; coffee was better than parched rye and chestnuts; spices could not be compensated for or remotely imitated by any substitutes.
So though there was ample quantity of food, the quality, save in the town, was not such as English housewives had been accustomed to; there were many deprivations in their kitchens which tried them sorely. The better cooks they were, the more trying were the limitations. Every woman with a love for her fellow-woman must feel a thrill of keen sympathy for the goodwife of Newport, New Hampshire, who had to make her Thanksgiving mince-pies with a filling of bear’s meat and dried pumpkins, sweetened with maple sugar, and her crust of corn-meal. Her husband loyally recorded that they were the best mince-pies he ever ate.
As years passed on and great wealth came to individuals, the tables of the opulent, especially in the Middle colonies, rivalled the luxury of English and French houses of wealth. It is surprising to read in Dr. Cutler’s diary that when he dined with Colonel Duer in New York in 1787, there were fifteen kinds of wine served besides cider, beer, and porter.
John Adams probably lived as well as any New Englander of similar position and means. A Sunday dinner at his house was thus described by a visitor: the first course was a pudding of Indian meal, molasses, and butter; then came a course of veal and bacon, neck of mutton, and vegetables. When the New Englander went to Philadelphia, his eyes opened wide at the luxury and extravagance of fare. He has given in his diary some accounts of the lavishness of the Philadelphia larder. Such entries as these are found:—
(Of the home of Miers Fisher, a young Quaker lawyer.) “This plain Friend, with his plain but pretty wife with her Thees and Thous, had provided us a costly entertainment; ducks, hams, chickens, beef, pig, tarts, creams, custards, jellies, fools, trifles, floating islands, beer, porter, punch, wine and a long, etc.”
(At the home of Chief Justice Chew.) “About four o’clock we were called to dinner. Turtle and every other thing, flummery, jellies, sweetmeats of twenty sorts, trifles, whipped sillabubs, floating islands, fools, etc., with a dessert of fruits, raisins, almonds, pears, peaches.”
“A most sinful feast again! everything which could delight the eye or allure the taste; curds and creams, jellies, sweetmeats of various sorts, twenty kinds of tarts, fools, trifles, floating islands, whipped sillabubs, etc. Parmesan cheese, punch, wine, porter, beer.”
By which lists may plainly be seen that our second President had somewhat of a sweet tooth.
The Dutch were great beer-drinkers and quickly established breweries at Albany and New York. But before the century had ended New Englanders had abandoned the constant drinking of ale and beer for cider. Cider was very cheap; but a few shillings a barrel. It was supplied in large amounts to students at college, and even very little children drank it. President John Adams was an early and earnest wisher for temperance reform; but to the end of his life he drank a large tankard of hard cider every morning when he first got up. It was free in every farmhouse to all travellers and tramps.
A cider-mill was usually built on a hillside so the building could be one story high in front and two in the back. Thus carts could easily unload the apples on the upper level and take away the barrels of cider on the lower. Standing below on the lower floor you could see two upright wooden cylinders, set a little way apart, with knobs, or nuts as they were called, on one cylinder which fitted loosely into holes on the other. The cylinders worked in opposite directions and drew in and crushed the apples poured down between them. The nuts and holes frequently clogged with the pomace. Then the mill was stopped and a boy scraped out with a stick or hook the crushed apples. A horse walking in a small circle moved a lever which turned the motor wheel. It was slow work; it took three hours to grind a cart-load of apples; but the machinery was efficient and simple. The pomace fell into a large shallow vat or tank, and if it could lie in the vat overnight it was a benefit. Then the pomace was put in a press. This was simple in construction. At the bottom was a platform grooved in channels; a sheaf of clean straw was spread on the platform, and with wooden shovels the pomace was spread thick over it. Then a layer of straw was laid at right angles with the first, and more pomace, and so on till the form was about three feet high; the top board was put on as a cover; the screw turned and blocks pressed down, usually with a long wooden hand-lever, very slowly at first, then harder, until the mass was solid and every drop of juice had trickled into the channels of the platform and thence to the pan below. Within the last two or three years I have seen those cider-mills at work in the country back of old Plymouth and in Narragansett, sending afar their sourly fruity odors. And though apple orchards are running out, and few new trees are planted, and the apple crop in those districts is growing smaller and smaller, yet is the sweet cider of country cider-mills as free and plentiful a gift to any passer-by as the water from the well or the air we breathe. Perry was made from pears, as cider is from apples, and peachy from peaches. Metheglin and mead, drinks of the old Druids in England, were made from honey, yeast, and water, and were popular everywhere. In Virginia whole plantations of the honey-locust furnished locust beans for making metheglin. From persimmons, elderberries, juniper berries, pumpkins, corn-stalks, hickory nuts, sassafras bark, birch bark, and many other leaves, roots, and barks, various light drinks were made. An old song boasted:—
“Oh, we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins, of parsnips, of walnut-tree chips.”
Many other stronger and more intoxicating liquors were made in large quantities, among them enormous amounts of rum, which was called often “kill-devil.” The making of rum aided and almost supported the slave-trade in this country. The poor negroes were bought on the coast of Africa by New England sea-captains and merchants and paid for with barrels of New England rum. These slaves were then carried on slave-ships to the West Indies, and sold at a large profit to planters and slave-dealers for a cargo of molasses. This was brought to New England, distilled into rum, and sent off to Africa. Thus the circle of molasses, rum, and slaves was completed. Many slaves were also landed in New England, but there was no crop there that needed negroes to raise it. So slavery never was as common in New England as in the South, where the tropical tobacco and rice fields needed negro labor. But New England’s share in promoting negro slavery in America was just as great as was Virginia’s.
Besides all the rum that was sent to Africa, much was drunk by Americans at home. At weddings, funerals, christenings, at all public meetings and private feasts, New England rum was ever present. In nothing is more contrast shown between our present day and colonial times than in the habits of liquor-drinking. We cannot be grateful enough for the temperance reform, which began at the early part of this century, and was so sadly needed.
For many years the colonists had no tea, chocolate, or coffee to drink; for those were not in use in England when America was settled. In 1690 two dealers were licensed to sell tea “in publique” in Boston. Green and bohea teas were sold at the Boston apothecaries’ in 1712. For many years tea was also sold like medicine in England at the apothecaries’ and not at the grocers’.
Many queer mistakes were made through ignorance of its proper use. Many colonists put the tea into water, boiled it for a time, threw the liquid away, and ate the tea-leaves. In Salem they did not find the leaves very attractive, so they put butter and salt on them.
In 1670 a Boston woman was licensed to sell coffee and chocolate, and soon coffee-houses were established there. Some did not know how to cook coffee any more than tea, but boiled the whole coffee-beans in water, ate them, and drank the liquid; and naturally this was not very good either to eat or drink.
At the time of the Stamp Act, when patriotic Americans threw the tea into Boston harbor, Americans were just as great tea-drinkers as the English. Now it is not so. The English drink much more tea than we do; and the habit of coffee-drinking, first acquired in the Revolution, has descended from generation to generation, and we now drink more coffee than tea. This is one of the differences in our daily life caused by the Revolution.
Many home-grown substitutes were used in Revolutionary times for tea: ribwort was a favorite one; strawberry and currant leaves, sage, thorough-wort, and “Liberty Tea,” made from the four-leaved loosestrife. “Hyperion tea” was raspberry leaves, and was said by good patriots to be “very delicate and most excellent.”