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Cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies

The cuisine of the Thirteen Colonies includes the foods, eating habits, and cooking methods of the British colonies in North America before the establishment of the United States in the 1770s and 1780s. It was derived from familiar traditions from the colonists’ home countries in the British Isles and particularly England. Many agricultural items came to the New World through trade with England and the West Indies. Certain familiar items grew better in the New World than others, and this led to a dependence on imports which drove the daily lives of the colonists. However, the colonial diet was increasingly supplemented by new animal and plant foods indigenous to the New World.

One of the icons of American culture, the apple pie, had its origin in East Anglian cooking traditions.In the years leading up to 1776, a number of events led to a drastic change in the diet of the American colonists. Taxes and tariffs levied by England increased the costs of goods and caused colonists to hold a grudge toward the British monarchy and British imports. Import tariffs and taxes, and other issues, eventually led to the American Revolution. As they could no longer depend on British and West Indian imports, agricultural practices of the colonists began to focus on becoming completely self sufficient.

Regional cuisines
The majority of immigrants to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries came from various parts of Britain in four waves. These four migration waves established the four major regional cultures that still affect life in the United States to this day.

Each of the migrations settled in different regions and were dominated by regional cultures from the British Isles that were transplanted across the Atlantic. Along with specific customs related to everything from religion to language, the British migrants brought with them food habits that formed major regional cuisines of English-speaking America.

New England
New England was the first region to experience large scale colonization in the early 17th century, beginning in 1620, and it was dominated by East Anglian Calvinists, better known as the Puritans. The religious fundamentalism of the Puritans created a cuisine that was austere, disdainful of feasting and with few embellishments. Eating was seen as a largely practical matter and one of the few occasions when New Englanders would engage in massive bouts of eating and drinking was at funerals, times when even children might drink large amounts of alcohol.

Age was one of the most important signs of authority and determined eating practices; though Puritan society was less stratified, particularly compared to the southern colonies, heads of the household and their spouses would often eat separately from both children and servants. Though New England had a great abundance of wildlife and seafood, traditional East Anglian fare was preferred, even if it had to be made with New World ingredients. Baked beans and pease porridge were everyday fare, particularly during the winter, and usually eaten with coarse, dark bread.

At first it was made with a mixture of wheat and maize (corn), but after a disease called wheat rust struck in the 1660s, it was made of rye and maize creating what has later been known as "rye 'n' injun". Vegetables with meat boiled thoroughly was a popular dish, and unlike many other regions in North American colonies, they were together, rather than separately, and frequently without seasoning. Baking was a particular favorite of the New Englanders and was the origin of dishes today seen as quintessentially American, such as apple pie and the baked Thanksgiving turkey.

Virginia
In the mid-17th century a second wave of English immigrants began arriving in North America, settling mainly around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland, though English settlers had lived in Virginia, along the James River, since 1608. The Virginian settlers were dominated by English noblemen with their servants (many were Cavaliers fleeing in the aftermath of the English Civil War 1642–51) and poor peasants from southern England.

The society the Cavaliers brought with them was highly stratified and this was reflected in food and eating habits. The aristocrats that would be the basis for the First Families of Virginia were very fond of game and red meat. Roast beef was a particular favorite, and even when oysters and goose were available, wealthy colonists could complain about the absence of meat. Virginia was the only place in North America where haute cuisine of any kind was practiced before the 19th century.

Virginians such as William Byrd (1652–1704) would indulge in extravagant dishes such as stewed swan or roast snipe, dinners were important social events, and the art of dinner conversation was considered an important skill in affluent households. Poor white farmers and black slaves ate much more humble fare and were quicker to incorporate American and African foodstuffs and flavorings. The food of the poor whites in the 17th century was similar to soul food of the 20th century.

Overall, both rich and poor southerners ate spicier and more pungent food than elsewhere in the early colonies, and feasting was an important part of life for all social classes. Cooking in southern England was noted for a tendency toward frying, simmering and roasting, and this also became true for Virginian cooking. While wealthy households tended to vary cooking methods greatly, poor households were generally confined to boiling and frying.

The only form of cooking that was slow to develop was baking. Typical dishes among the upper classes were fricassees of various meats with herbs, and sometimes a good amount of claret. Common food among the lower classes was corn porridge, or mush, and hominy with greens and salt-cured meat, and later the traditional southern fried chicken.

Delaware Valley and Mid-Atlantic region
The Quakers emigrated to the New World from the Northern English Midlands during the 17th century, and eventually settled primarily in the Delaware Valley.  They were similar to the Puritans in the strictness that they applied to everyday life, though their religious teachings were far more egalitarian. The food was plain and simple.

Excessive consumption was discouraged and failure to eat or drink moderately was punished with public acts of self-criticism. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and an important figure in the development of the Quaker movement encouraged frugality in his followers with advice such as "If thou rise with an appetite thou are sure never to sit down without one".

Just like the Puritans, the Quakers encountered an abundance of food in the New World; forests rich with game and berries, streams teeming with fish, and flocks of birds so abundant that they would sometimes block the sun for several hours. Still the asceticism persevered. Many Quakers avoided eating butter as a form of self-mortification, and the most eccentric followers would avoid tea and meat.

The idealist and pacifist ideas of the Quakers also encouraged many to boycott products that were considered to be tainted by sin. This included salt, due to its role in raising war taxes, and sugar, because it was produced by slave labor. Eating habits were more egalitarian than either that of the Puritans or the Virginian Anglicans. At meals, entire households would dine at the same table, including children and servants.

The most typical cooking method of the Quakers was boiling, a method brought from ancestral northern England. Boiled breakfast and dinner were standard fare, as well as "pop-robbins", balls of batter made from flour and eggs boiled in milk. Boiled dumplings and puddings were so common in Quaker homes that they were referred to by outsiders as "Quakers' food".

Travelers noted apple dumplings as an almost daily dish in the Delaware Valley and cook books specialized in puddings and dumplings. Food was mostly preserved through boiling, simmering or standing. A popular genre of dishes made from this favored method of food preparation was "cheese" (or "butter"), a generic term for dishes prepared by slow boiling or pressing. It could be made from ingredients as varying as apples (i.e. apple butter), plums and walnuts. Cream cheese had its origins in Quaker cooking, but was in colonial times not true cheese made with rennet or curds, but rather cream that was warmed gently and then allowed to stand between cloth until it became semi-solid. Dried beef was widely popular in the Delaware Valley and was eaten along with puddings and dumplings to add flavor.

The use of dried beef was so widespread that it was often called "Quaker gravy" in the 18th century. Though the Quaker influence from the Northern Midlands was the most dominant, there was some influence from German immigrants during the 18th century. Scrapple, a pot pudding made from meat scraps and grain, became a staple of the regional cuisine for many generations.

Backcountry
The last major wave of British immigrants to the colonies took place from 1720–1775. About 250,000 people travelled across the Atlantic primarily to seek economic betterment and to escape hardships and famine. Most of these came from the borderlands of northern Britain and were of Irish or Scottish descent.

Many were poor and therefore accustomed to hard times, setting them apart from the other major British immigrant groups. They settled in what would come to be known generally as the "Backcountry", on the frontier and in the highlands in the north and south. The backcountry relied heavily on a diet based on mush made from soured milk or boiled grains. Clabber, a yoghurt-like food made with soured milk, was a standard breakfast dish and was eaten by backcountry settlers of all ages.

This dietary habit was not shared by other British immigrant groups and was equally despised by those still in Britain. The Anglican missionary Charles Woodmason, who spent time among Ulster Irish immigrants, described them as depending "wholly on butter, milk, clabber and what in England is given to hogs". Oatmeal mush was a popular meal in the British borderlands and remained popular in America.

The only difference was that the oatmeal was replaced by corn, and is still known today in the South as grits. Cakes of unleavened dough baked on bakestones or circular griddles were common and went by names such as "clapbread", "griddle cakes" and "pancakes". While the potato had originated in South America, it did not became established in North America until it was brought to the colonies by northern British settlers in the 18th century and became an important backcountry staple along with corn.

Pork had been a food taboo among northern Britons and the primary meat had been sheep. In the American colonies the raising of sheep was not as efficient and mutton was therefore replaced with pork.  The habit of eating "sallet" or "greens" remained popular, but the vegetables of the Old World were replaced with plants like squashes, gourds, beans, corn, land cress and pokeweed.

The distinctive cooking style of the British borderlands and the American backcountry was boiling.  Along with clabber, porridge and mushes, the typical dishes were various stews, soups and pot pies.

Two meals per day, a hearty breakfast and an early supper, was the standard.  Food was eaten from wooden or pewter trenchers with two-tined forks, large spoons and hunting knives.  Dishware was not popular since it was easily breakable and tended to dull knives quickly.  Unlike the Quakers and Puritans, feasting with an abundance of food and drink was never discouraged and practiced as often as was feasible.

Generally, the backcountry cuisine did not share the religious austerity of the North nor the refinement of the South and was therefore denigrated by outside commentators.  An apparent lack of fastidiousness in preparing the food provoked further criticism from many sources.  The Anglican Woodmason characterized backcountry cooking as "exceedingly filthy and most execrable".

Others told of matrons washing their feet in the cookpot, that it was considered unlucky to wash a milk churn and that human hairs in butter were considered a sign of quality.  These descriptions seem to be confirmed by an old saying attributed to Appalachian housewives: "The mair [more] dirt the less hurt".

Another expression of backcountry hardiness was the lack of appreciation of coffee and tea.  Both were described as mere "slops" and were deemed appropriate only for those who were sick or unfit for labor.

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