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Food and Drink


FOOD AND DRINK. There are few easy generalizations about the diet of early modern Europeans. Perhaps the only safe one is that, for most Europeans, grain was the most important ingredient in most food and drink: it was consumed as bread, pasta, and gruel, and drunk as beer and ale. As such, it was the prime source of nutrition for the vast majority of the population. Beyond grain, a wide diversity of foods and beverages was consumed, but their significance within diets depended on several considerations. Of these, the single most important one was availability: for the mass of Europe's population, the food and drink that were locally available were likely to be the least expensive, and therefore the most popular. The price of imported foodstuffs (whether from other countries or from other regions within one country) was inflated by the costs of transportation, so that they were more likely to find their way only into the diet of the better-off classes.

Even within the range of more accessible foods and drinks, however, there were variations based on seasonality and the costs of production and methods of preparation. Food and drink were also a sensitive expression of culture, so that the substance of diet, and also the quantities of various elements in diets, varied according to class, religion, and gender.

The following description and analysis of food and drink in early modern Europe draws a broad picture of diet and its evolution over three-and-a-half centuries (14501789) while recognizing the significance of regional, class, religious, and gender variations. It also takes note of the introduction of exotic foods and drinks to the European diet in this period of expansion to the Americas and Asia. Europeans were introduced to tea, coffee, chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, and some new spices at this time. While these commodities remained largely confined to the elites during the early modern period, they later became common in mainstream diets. To this extent, the early modern period is marked not only by strong lines of continuity in patterns of food and drink, but also by significant changes.


The fundamental importance of grain is the dominant fact of European diet through to the nineteenth century and even the twentieth in some regions. Grain (especially wheat and rye) was generally consumed as bread, but it could also be eaten as gruel and, especially in the Mediterranean region, as pasta. Barley was used to make ale and beer.

The centrality of grain to diet is shown by its widespread cultivation throughout Europe, and by popular concern at the size of the harvest and at impending or actual shortages. It was grown even in regions where it was a marginal crop and in areas from which its cultivation later disappeared once cheaper transportation and greater diversity in diet developed. Throughout the early modern period, the most important event of the year was the grain harvest. A good harvest indicated a certain security of survival for the coming year, but a poor harvest promised shortages and high prices, especially during the summer, in the months preceding the following year's harvest. The most common form of collective disturbances in early modern Europe were grain or bread riots provoked by shortages or by increases in bread prices.

Estimates of the importance of grain in the daily diet vary, but as a general rule we can say that, in all its forms, it could account for between 75 and 90 percent of the daily nutritional intake for vast numbers of Europeans. As a general rule, the better-off people were and the more varied their diet, the smaller the representation of bread in their nutritional makeup. For the rich, bread accounted for no more than 20 per cent of daily nutrition.

Bread came in many forms, most of it made from cereals (although it was also made from beans and chestnuts). One fundamental distinction was in color, as the better-off ate lighter-colored, even white, bread. This was usually made from wheat and was more thoroughly sieved to eliminate all but the finer, white grains of flour. As a result, it was more expensive. Further down the social scale, bread became darker and coarser, and it was made not only of corn, but also from rye, barley, millet, and oats, depending on the crops grown in the locality. Wealthier consumers were more likely to buy their bread on a daily basis, or several times a week, whereas the poor (especially in rural areas) tended to buy it far less often. Even when peasants baked their own bread, they avoided doing so frequently, so as to save fuel. The result was that the mass of European populations consumed what we would consider stale bread, but which was more often described as "hard" bread at the time. It was less easy to eat than fresh bread, and it was generally eaten with liquids like soup, beer, or wine to make it more easily digestible.

Cereals, especially those that made poor bread, were also consumed in liquid or semiliquid forms. Porridges, gruels, and mashes were common throughout Europe, made from cereals like oats, millet, and buckwheat. Examples are oatmeal porridge in Scotland and kasza, made from a variety of cereals, in eastern Europe.


Diet in the early modern period was relatively meatless compared to both the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, and there were many complaints in the sixteenth century about the absence of meat from tables. A Swabian wrote that "in the past they ate differently at the peasant's house. Then, there was meat and food in profusion every day. . . . Today everything has truly changed . . . the food of the most comfortably off peasants is almost worse than that of day laborers and servants in the old days" (quoted in Braudel, p. 194). The deteriorating diet was also noticed on feast days, when peasants typically ate more and better food than on ordinary workdays. A sixteenth-century peasant from Brittany longed for the times "when it was difficult for an ordinary feast day to pass by without someone from the village inviting all the rest to dinner, to eat his chicken, his gosling, his ham, his first lamb, and his pig's heart" (quoted in Braudel, p. 195).

Part of the explanation for the relative rarity of meat from the sixteenth century onward is that Europe's population grew rapidly in the 1500s. By 1600 there were about 110 million Europeans, more than the 90 million who had lived in Europe before the devastating Black Death of the 1300s. The production of many foods simply did not keep pace with demographic growth, and livestock herds were among them. Of course we must be careful not to take too literally those statements that meat had disappeared entirely from the tables of Europe's masses. That might have been true in some regions (Sicily, for example), but meat was at least an occasional item throughout Europe. Overall, though, the trend in the early modern period was toward lower meat consumption. For example, in late-sixteenth-century Naples, about 30,000 cattle were slaughtered annually to provide meat for about 200,000 people. Two hundred years later, only 22,000 cattle were killed, but the population of the city had doubled. One of the implications of reduced meat consumption was an increase in the amount of grain consumed.

If meat was consumed at all levels of European society in the early modern period, there were huge variations by social class in the frequency with which it appeared on the table, and the amount that was consumed. It was relatively rare for the poor to eat meat, but accounts of banquets at the other end of the social scale list daunting amounts of meat.

There was also a religious distinction following the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church required its adherents to follow dietary rules, one of which was to abstain from meat during fast days, especially in the period of Lent. Overall, Catholics were required to abstain from meat or animal fats (butter, lard, cheese) for about 160 to 170 days a year, almost half the year. The Orthodox churches in eastern Europe were even more rigorous, demanding abstention from meat and animal products on as many as 200 days. But the Protestant churches rejected these dietary restrictions, and in regions where Protestants were the majority (northern Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scotland, and England), meat consumption was probably more frequent and higher.


Fish and seafood were alternatives to meat and were often permitted when meat was forbidden for religious reasons. They were especially important in the diets of communities lying on the coast, not only for the fish that could be caught locally, but also because these communities were often homes of long-distance fishing fleets. Throughout the early modern period, Atlantic ports were the bases of fishing boats that traveled as far as the east coast of North America (especially off Newfoundland) in search of schools of cod while, closer at hand, boats from northern European ports trawled the North Sea for herring. Seafood, like oysters and mussels, was also harvested from the shoreline.

Freshwater fish were also caught and eaten in considerable quantities. Fishing was often a privilege, which prevented all and sundry from providing for themselves, but local markets often sold the legal catch. France's Loire River was well known for its salmon and carp, while the Rhine was famous for perch.

Overall, fish was not prized as highly as meat. While some locally caught fish and seafood might be sold fresh, everything else had to be preserved for lack of refrigeration. Preservation meant salting the fish, and there were recurrent complaints of fish that was too heavily salted and of fish that was not salted enough.

Misused it might have been from time to time, but salt was very important as a seasoning and preservative. Mined from rock salt or collected from salt pans on the coasts of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it gave flavor to many dishes, including especially the fairly bland ones made of cereal and beans. But its greatest service was as a preservative, and without it most Europeans would not have been able to eat as much meat, fish, and vegetables as they did. So important was salt to the diet and to food preservation that some governments imposed heavy taxes on it. The French salt tax, or gabelle, was levied at different rates throughout the country (and not at all in some regions), which gave rise to a high rate of salt smuggling. Because it was a tax on such a basic item of the diet, it was much resented and was one of the first taxes abolished during the French Revolution.

The amount of salt consumed varied greatly from region to region and over time, but it was seldom less than three kilograms per capita a year, and in some places as high as nine. (For comparison, the consumption of salt from all sources in modern Western societies is a little over two kilograms.)


Dairy products (milk, butter, cheese) were more associated with the diets of the better-off than those of the masses. Although some regionally identified cheeses, like Parmesan and Roquefort, were already well known, cheese was not widely used in cooking until the eighteenth century. It was an important source of protein, but not an inexpensive one, and it appeared infrequently in the diets of the peasants and the poor.

Milk also tended to be beyond the reach of the mass of Europe's people on any regular basis. It was consumed in some quantities by the middle and upper classes, however, as the milk supply to London shows. In winter, when the wealthy moved their houses to the capital, milk consumption rose dramatically. In summer, when these same people returned to the country, London's milk consumption fell. For such a small proportion of the population to have such an impact on milk consumption suggests that the mass of London's inhabitants, who lived there all year, consumed relatively little milk.

Butter was more common in northern Europe, where it was a valuable oil, than in the south where lard and olive oil were more frequently consumed. Butter was rarely found outside the houses of the well-off, however, and it was used extensively in the preparation of foods like sauces. It seems to have been regarded with some suspicion by southerners (some thought it caused leprosy), and some who traveled through northern Europe brought their own supplies of olive oil with them.

Eggs, on the other hand, seem to have been more common. They were relatively inexpensive, and one late-sixteenth-century commentary has it that seven eggs cost a tenth of the price of a fowl, half the price of a melon, and the same as all the bread you can eat in a day.


Cultural prejudices, like that of southern Europeans toward butter, were to be expected in the case of exotic foods, products imported from outside Europe. While some quickly found their way into the diets of some Europeans, depending on their wealth or location, others were accepted far more slowly. One was the potato, brought to Europe in the late 1400s and planted extensively by the 1700s, but not widely consumed as human food until the 1800s. For centuries after its arrival in Europe, the potato was regarded as fit only for animals, and it was widely regarded with suspicion as dangerous to humans. Like other vegetables that grew under the ground (such as turnips), potatoes were located at the bottom of the hierarchy of acceptable foods.

Some governments, wanting to wean their populations from reliance on cereal crops, launched campaigns to encourage people to eke out their diets with potatoes. They were only slowly successful, and in countries like France (which was later associated with a number of ways of preparing potatoes), there was strong resistance. As late as the end of the eighteenth century, some cases of insanity in France were attributed to consuming potatoes.

Other exotic foods were less problematic. Maize was imported from the Americas and was quickly adopted as an alternative cereal to those already being grown in Europe. It was generally considered a low-quality cereal, however, and was generally used to make foods like biscuits, porridge and, in Italy, polenta. Rice also found a home in Europe, particularly in the valley of the Po River, and rice-based dishes became staples of the Italian diet.

One of the most popular imported foods, however, was sugar. Originally cultivated in south Asia and later planted on the island of Madeira and then in the European colonies in the West Indies, it was the subject of almost insatiable demand in some parts of Europe. The English embraced sugar eagerly, and by the end of the early modern period were consuming some 150,000 tons of it a year, fifteen times more than a hundred years earlier. It remained a luxury commodity in most parts of Europe, however, and entered common consumption only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


At the beginning of the early modern period, the main forms of beverage were water, beer, and wine. Historians generally argue that sources of drinking water were often unsuitable or polluted by nature or human activity. For this reason, alcoholic beverages were preferred because the process of fermentation (to make beer and wine) kills a level of bacteria by raising the temperature and producing alcohol. Even so, water must have been consumed in large quantities, and the supposed merits and dangers of its consumption were debated throughout this period.

Beer and wine. Alcoholic beverages are better documented than water, however, because their production and trade were increasingly regulated. Of the two main types, beer and wine, beer was more widely consumed because it could be made year-round from the grain that was grown throughout Europe. Wine, in contrast, could be made only once a year, in the fall when grapes ripened, and enough had to be made to last until the following vintage.

The beer consumed in the early modern period was a cloudy beverage, not the clear, sparkling drink that it usually is today. It was widely consumed at all times of the day, with the first meal and the last, and as a nutritious drink without food. Although it lost ground to wine in the sixteenth century, it rebounded in the seventeenth when hops became more widely used and more aromatic beers were made. In 1662 the authorities of Bordeaux banned brewing in the city because of the threat that beer represented to sales of wine.

Wine was made wherever grapes could be grown, including not only most modern viticultural regions, but many regions where grapes are no longer cultivated for wine. In France, for example, there were many more vineyards in the north and fewer in the south than in modern times. Early modern wine was made without much attention to grape varieties, and techniques of wine making were such that the wine was unstable; most of it lasted for a year, at best, before it started to go "off," and in general, younger wines were more expensive than older wines.

Wine was an integral part of the daily diet in regions where vines were cultivated, but trading routes had been established in the Middle Ages, so that wine was available throughout Europe. Vast quantities of claret, a light red wine produced in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France, were shipped annually to England, the Low Countries, and the Baltic region. Wine from the interior of Germany was shipped down the Rhine and from there to the Low Countries and the Baltic. Wine from Mediterranean regions (Italy, Greece, Spain) was shipped to England and by river to eastern Europe and Russia.

The costs of transportation and excise duties meant that wine was always more expensive than locally produced beer, so that wine tended to be a luxury beverage, an everyday drink of the better-off. Where it was produced, however, it seems to have been consumed in considerable quantities. One of the highest rates is found in seventeenth-century Bologna, where annual per capita consumption was 300 to 350 liters, or almost a liter a day. If we bear in mind that women and children consumed less than adult males, and that a high proportion of the population was young, then it is likely that men consumed at least two liters of winealmost three standard bottleseach day.

Beyond beer and wine, some other alcoholic beverages were popular in regions where the ingredients needed were plentiful. Cider was commonly consumed where apples flourishedNormandy in France and Devon in England, for example. And mead, made from honey, was widely available where bees could collect pollen from wildflowers.

Water. Water was still problematic. It was needed for beer production (and was probably used often to "stretch," or dilute, wine), but it must also have been widely consumed. The poor within Europe's populations could not have afforded to satisfy their liquid needs by drinking beer or wine, and it is also likely that alcoholic beverages were consumed in diluted form. Ships on long-distance voyages took barrels of fresh water as well as barrels of beer for sailors to consume, although the water in the barrels tended to foul quickly, especially in warm temperatures.

The clearest indirect evidence that water was widely consumed is the general attitude that women and children should consume alcoholic beverages sparingly. In "Le bon vigneron" (The worthy winemaker), a late-sixteenth-century poem from Burgundy, the winemaker comments that he drinks only his own wine "and not water, which is only good for putting in soup. . . . I leave that for my wife to drink. . . . Women, children, and many of the poor can spend their whole lives without wine and drinking only water."

Various reasons for this were advanced, but whatever its justification, anyone who did not drink an alcoholic beverage at all, or did so only in small quantities, must have drunk water. The alternatives, like milk and fruit juices, were produced in relatively small quantities and were, of course, much more expensive than water.

Still, it is difficult to assess the extent of water consumption in early modern Europe because water was a free resource that was unregulated, unprotected, and untaxed. We should not take too literally commentaries like that of Sir John Fortescue (in the mid-1400s), to the effect that English peasants "drink no water unless it be . . . for devotion." By the 1600s there was a vigorous debate among doctors, scientists, and social commentators on the advantages and disadvantages of drinking water. Thomas Shortt, one of England's foremost physicians, argued that water was dangerous for English people because they were not accustomed to it. It was safer, he thought, for peoples whose constitutions were adapted to water and for populations that lived in hot climates, like Africa. Even so, Dr. Shortt lent his name to a plan to install desalinization machines on board ships so that sailors would have a continuous supply of fresh water.

Distilled beverages. But if beer, wine, and water were Europe's main drinks at the beginning of the early modern period, others were added as the period progressed. One of the major innovations was the spread of distilled alcohol. Knowledge of distilling had entered Europe from the Middle East as early as 1000, but until the sixteenth century it was tightly regulated and in the hands of apothecaries for medicinal purposes. The alcohol in question was a high-alcohol drink made by distilling wine, which became generically known as brandy (from the Dutch for 'burnt-wine', brandewijn ). During the 1500s, apothecaries lost their monopoly on distilling, and in the 1600s brandy quickly became a commercial product.

Charente, on France's west coast, became the first center of the distilling industry because it was rich in forests (needed to fuel the stills) and abundant poor-quality white wine. By the mid-1600s brandy was being taxed and Charente was the site of a massive distilling industry that produced brandy for the rest of Europe. It is estimated that in 1675, about 4.5 million liters of brandy were exported to England, and that that amount doubled within fifteen years. Nine million liters would have provided about two liters a years for every man, woman, and child, but in fact its consumption was limited to adult males of the wealthier middle and upper classes.

While brandy was not a major element in the European diet, it became common in many parts of northern continental Europe to begin the day with a shot of brandy or other distilled alcohol. Throughout the period, anxiety was expressed at the effects of drinking distilled alcohol. It was considered an entirely different type of beverage from wine or beer, and there was concern at its tendency to intoxicate much more rapidly than beer or wine. Regulations were quickly adopted in many parts of Europe to control production, sale, and consumption. In the German city of Augsburg, consumers were limited as to how much they could spend on brandy at one time, they were not permitted to sit or to consume food while drinking it, and the activities of brandy merchants were limited to certain days of the week and times of day.

Over time, drinks made by distilling alcohol extended beyond brandy to include whiskey and gin (made from grain), vodka (made from grain or potatoes), and Calvados (from apples). It is notable that these drinks are more associated with northern Europe than the south. The possibility of distilling from locally available ingredients (like grain, potatoes, and apples) gave northern Europeans access to less expensive, high-alcohol beverages other than brandy, which was generally made in the wine-growing regions to the south. It is likely that distilled alcohol was especially popular in the cooler climates of northern Europe because of the warming sensation of the alcohol.

One of these beverages, gin, caused one of the few alcohol-generated moral panics of the period: the "gin-craze" in early eighteenth-century England. In the late 1600s the English Parliament virtually deregulated gin production, partly to compensate for interruptions in the import of French brandy, due to war between England and France, partly because gin was developed in Holland and in 1689 William III of Orange became king of England. Soon the production and consumption rose steeply and by the 1720s it was alleged that gin had become the staple diet of the poor in London and some other English cities.

The actual per capita consumption of gin at this time is not known, but social commentators created scenarios of men drinking away their wages and women neglecting their children. Sales of milk and meat were said to have dropped away as people spent their income entirely on gin, and children were said to be addicted at birth. There is no doubt that gin consumption in England did rise in the first half of the 1700s, but it is not clear how important it was in creating serious social disruption. The panic was a concentrated example of the concerns about the effects of distilled alcohol on the social order that had been expressed throughout the early modern period.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate. Other additions to the range of drinks available were nonalcoholic, but they were regarded with suspicion in some quarters because they were recognized as stimulants, even if their active ingredient, caffeine, was not identified. Three beverages came into play here: coffee, tea, and chocolate (which was consumed as a drink, rather than in solid form, until the nineteenth century).

Coffee reached Europe from the Middle East early in the seventeenth century and by the mid-1600s, coffeehouses had opened in France, England, and Austria. By 1700 there were some two thousand in London alone. Although coffee was less expensive than tea, it remained beyond the means of ordinary people in the early modern period and was largely confined to the diet of the middle and upper classes, especially in the cities. By the eighteenth century, coffeehouses were widely associated with political radicalism.

Caffeine was not identified as coffee's active ingredient at this time, but its qualities as a stimulant were quickly recognized and, like tea, it was considered an alternative to alcoholic beverages. As with most newly introduced foods and drinks, there was a lively debate over the merits of coffee. In Germany and elsewhere, it was regarded with suspicion, and some doctors argued that it caused impotence in men and sterility in women. Johann Sebastian Bach's Coffee Cantata (1732) was a reaction to those views. It is not clear just how frequently coffee was consumed, but sales increased steadily during the period. In eighteenth-century Prussia, Frederick the Great tried to restrict coffee consumption and issued a decree urging his subjects to return to their traditional beer. Spies were employed to sniff out illicit coffee roasting, but in the end the campaign against coffee died in the face of the drink's popularity.

Like coffee, tea also made its appearance in Europe in the 1600s. The first shipments (from Java) arrived in 1610. Even so, it remained relatively rare outside royal courts and the homes of the wealthy until the eighteenth century. In 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys noted, "I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before."

Tea soon became a drink more associated with England than any other part of Europe. Quite why is not clear. Physicians and scientists debated the advantages and dangers of tea drinking, and there were the usual dire warnings about its effects on health and reproduction. But such warnings were ignored when it came to coffee, which was consumed throughout Europe, and it is not clear why they might have been given greater credence when applied to tea. Possibly it had to do with availability, for the British East India Company became the major transporter of tea from eastern Asia. And unlike coffee, which began to be cultivated in the West Indies and South America in the early modern period, tea remained a product of Asia. And when it was transplanted from its center in China, it was to India, then a British colony. (Russia, the other major society to adopt tea, imported it directly by land from China.)


The early modern period saw a vast range of diets, whether we look at them over time, region, or social class. Diets varied according to availability, which could be determined by seasonal or financial factors. All diets were relatively high in caloric value, simply because of the prominence of high-carbohydrate ingredients like bread and alcohol. But at some levels of society, diets were so calorie-laden that they cannot have been healthy. Senior courtiers at the court of King Erik of Sweden in the sixteenth century consumed an average of 6,500 calories a day, but they were outdone by the retinue of Cardinal Jules Mazarin in France in the next century. They consumed between 7,000 and 8,000 calories a day.

There were also important differences in how these diets were consumed. Peasants tended to eat four or five times a day, and perhaps even more often during the long hours of daylight in summer, but the upper classes ate less frequently. In the sixteenth century, members of Italy's elite strata were eating twice a day, once at about two in the afternoon, and again at about nine at night. Dining, of course, reflected the other occupations of the daily cycle. Those who could afford to sleep late in the morning might well have their first meal in the early afternoon. But peasants and urban laborers, whose work began at dawn, needed sustenance far earlier, and their hard physical labor called for replenishment at more frequent intervals.

It was, therefore, not only the content of diet that varied immensely, but also its role in the daily, monthly, and annual life cycle, and its meaning. The study of food and drink in early modern Europe is not simply about eating bread and drinking wine and beer; it is a window on the material and cultural life of the period.

See also Agriculture ; Food Riots ; Public Health .


Braudel, Fernand, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th18th Century. Vol. I, The Structures of Everyday Life. Translated by Siân Reynolds. New York, 1981.

Burnett, John. Liquid Pleasures. A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain. London, 1999.

Drummond, J. C., and Anne Wilbraham. The Englishman's Food: Five Centuries of English Diet. London, 1939. Reprint 1994.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis, and Massimo Montanari, eds. Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present. English edition by Albert Sonnenfeld. Translated by Clarissa Botsford et al. New York, 1999.

Martin, A. Lynn. Alcohol, Sex, and Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York, 2001.

Phillips, Rod. A Short History of Wine. London and New York, 2000.

Sarti, Raffaella. Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 15001800. Translated by Allan Cameron. New Haven, 2002.

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. History of Food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Oxford, 1992.

Wheaton, Barbara Ketchum. Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789. New York, 1996.

Rod Phillips

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Food and Drink

Food and Drink


Typical Diet. The American diet at midcentury was based on two common staples: corn and salt pork. (Fresh pork was available only at slaughtering time.) One European traveler, tired of being served these ubiquitous foods, complained about the eternal pork, which makes its appearance on every American table, high and low, rich and poor. Subsistence farmers, who grew their own food with a little left over to sell to others, often enjoyed more-varied diets than those who were farming market crops such as cotton and tobacco. Yet even those farmers who were free to grow the foods they wanted to eat were limited to what grew best in their regions. For example, New Englanders supplemented their diets by fishing for the plentiful cod. southerners grew sweet potatoes. Another important consideration was what the farmer could most effectively preserve to last the families through the winter. Corn was less susceptible to blight than wheat, and cornmeal kept well and could be used in a variety of dishes. Milk, which spoiled quickly in hot weather, was made into butter and cheese, which kept better. Leafy vegetables spoiled easily, so farmers were more likely to grow vegetables such as beans, which were easier to preserve, or beets, apples, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, and turnips, which could be stored for long periods of time in root cellars. Orchard fruits such as apples were often grown for cider and brandy. Because foods such as fresh fruit and leafy vegetables were available mainly in the summer, American nutrition suffered from seasonal imbalances. By the 1850s, however, improved transportation and preservation techniques began to bring a greater variety of fresh vegetables and fruits to the American table. Even allowing for wide regional variations, Americans (especially farmers) had one thing in common; they all ate heavy, rich, and plentiful meals, especially at noontime. This meal, commonly called dinner, was the most important meal of the day throughout the nineteenth century and was considered by many to be an important time for gathering the family together for prayer and companionship.

Consumption and Calories. One historian has estimated that the average American farmer in the mid nineteenth century consumed about four thousand calories daily. This astounding food intake is about twice modern consumption and probably three times that of the average nineteenth-century laborer or farmer in Europe. Americans caloric excesses were largely the result of their fondness for fried foods, especially those prepared in bacon grease. Of course, there were significant regional variations in the kinds and quantities of food that Americans consumed. People who lived in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states had access to the cheese, butter, and salted beef produced on dairy farms. Proximity to seaport cities also made seafood, as well as imported fruits and other out-of-season delicacies, available at least to the wealthier classes. Contrary to popular belief, most Americans did have fairly well-balanced diets. Backyard vegetable gardens ensured that even lower-middle-class city dwellers had access to fresh vegetables in season. Some of the vegetables that were available included artichokes, peas, many kinds of beans, tomatoes, turnips, potatoes, parsnips, lettuces, cabbages, radishes, carrots, spinach, and cauliflower. As Catharine Beecher, sister of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in her treatise on domestic economy, As regards the department of Vegetables, their number and variety in America are so great that a table might almost be furnished by these alone.

Improved Preservation. One of the most important changes in the American diet during the early nineteenth century was the increased availability of foods that had once been available only during the growing season. Self-sealing glass jars for home canning of fruits and vegetables became available in the 1850s, with Mason Jars, introduced in 1858, quickly becoming the most popular preserving jar in America. Cookbooks and housekeeping manuals advised every housewife to enrich her familys diet with canned or preserved goods in winter. Yet until the home pressure cooker became available in the early twentieth century, the housewife could preserve

only acidic vegetables such as tomatoes, or fruits and vegetables that could be preserved with sugar or in brine. Even in those cases food sometimes spoiled because the seals on canning jars were less reliable than they became in the twentieth century. Peppers, corn, cucumbers, and onions could be preserved in brine as pickles, chutneys, and relishes. While fruits could be turned into jams and jellies, the high cost of sugar throughout the nineteenth century limited the quantities that many housewives could make. As in the past, meats and fish were preserved for the winter mainly by salting or smoking them.

Tin Cans. With the perfection of the tin-can food processing in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and the expansion of railroad lines, a wide variety of commercially preserved foods, including meats, vegetables, and fruits, were becoming available across the nation. By 1860 commercial canners were producing nearly five million cans of food a year. Within a decade that number rose to twelve million. The Swift and Armour meatpacking companies made their fortunes supplying canned meat to soldiers in the Union army, and after the war they shipped their products nationwide. In 1856 Gail Borden patented his formula for preserving milk by adding sugar and heating it in a vacuum. During the Civil War his plants distributed large quantities of this sweetened condensed milk to the Union army, creating a national market for the product after the war. Cheese, however, remained the most common dairy product in the American diet.

Ice Boxes. Beginning in the 1840s Americans also began to make use of ice from ponds and lakes to preserve their foods. Farmers earned extra income in the winter by chopping blocks of ice from local ponds and storing it underground for use during the summer. Although many household manuals of the 1860s declared that an ice box was an indispensable convenience, only city and town dwellers owned them. Made of wood and lined with tin or zinc, an ice box kept food fresh in a compartment cooled by a block of ice. Beginning in the mid 1850s people in towns and cities, particularly in the North, had ice delivered to their homes at the cost of around two dollars a month for fifteen pounds of ice per day.

Mealtime in the City. As people moved from farm to city, many old-fashioned Americans began to notice around 1870 that the proper noon-time dinner was beginning to give way to a quickly prepared lunch. Fathers working in town could not rush home for dinner in the middle of the day and ate at oyster bars or restaurants instead. For city and town dwellers, supper became the only meal where all the family members saw one another.

Regional Variety. Despite the increased availability of foods from other regions, tastes in food varied from region to region. The traditional southern fare of corn and pork was supplemented with local varieties of vegetables, such as okra, sweet potatoes, and greens. Rice was popular only in rice-growing areas; it did not become a dietary staple in the rest of the country until late in the nineteenth century. Chicken was a favorite meat for special occasions everywhere, but only northerners and south-westerners ate much lamb. While southerners liked sweet potatoes, northerners preferred white, or Irish potatoes, and while New Englanders ate cod, often preserved for winter by salting, southerners enjoyed fried catfish served with hush puppies (fried cornmeal batter). Seafood was an important part of the diet in all coastal areas, especially in Louisiana, where the city of New Orleans became renowned for its culinary arts. The richest families in the South served lavish meals and imported delicacies. Slaves subsisted on dishes made with cornmeal and less desirable cuts of pork. Because agricultural journals of the period told plantation owners that slaves who ate a more varied diet were healthier and lived longer, many slave owners allowed slaves to grow their own greens and other vegetables on small plots of ground near the slave cabins after their regular work was finished. A slaves main meal might consist of hogs feet, chitterlings (chitlins, or fried hog intestines), greens, and some sort of corn dish such as hoecake, corn pone, or hominy grits.

Immigrant Fare. Immigrants brought their own traditional foods and recipes, some of which eventually made their way into the American diet. The Germans brought seasoned ham served with potatoes and cabbage. Midwestern German immigrants introduced what was first called German fried potatoes, which became known as home fries. The Irish introduced corned beef and cabbage, which became a popular meal in Boston and other parts of New England. Cajuns, French Canadian immigrants from Acadia (Nova Scotia), created spicy cuisine in Louisiana. By the end of the Civil War French fried potatoes had been introduced, but probably not by French immigrants. This food became immensely popular in many urban centers, because it was so easily and quickly prepared by street vendors and at public events.

What Americans Drank. The drinking habits Americans formed during the first half of the nineteenth century changed little during middle decades of the century. After the temperance crusades of the 1830s, alcohol consumption fell considerably, from four gallons per capita per year in the 1820s to one and a half gallons in the 1840s. Temperance crusaders, many of whom were women, encouraged everyone to drink water instead of whiskey or rum. As a result, the distinctively American custom of drinking a glass of water with meals was established around the middle of the century. During the Civil War, however, drinking increased among soldiers on both sides even though both the Union and Confederate armies regulations strictly forbade liquor sales to enlisted men and punished offenders with prison sentences. Only officers were allowed to possess whiskey, but other soldiers found many ways to circumvent this unpopular regulation and had little trouble obtaining alcohol. Alcohol consumption varied greatly among ethnic groups. For Irish and German immigrants alcohol was an important ingredient in family celebrations. On the whole, however, alcohol consumption continued to decline until the end of the nineteenth century.

Coffee and Tea. Coffee was the favorite morning beverage for almost all Americans. In the summer lemonade and other fruit drinks were popular, iced if one could afford it. Historians are uncertain about exactly when American ladies began to drink tea in the afternoon, but the practice was already well established in both urban and rural areas by the mid 1840s. Womens diaries from the 1850s through the 1870s include frequent references to afternoon tea parties or sharing a pot of tea and baked treats with a single female visitor.


In 1851 the New York Tribune reported the prices for items on a typical weekly grocery list for an average family of five living in Philadelphia:

Butchers meat, at 2 Ibs. per day, 10 cents per pound, for a total of $1.40

A barrel of flour, 62 cents (Purchased once in two months)

2 Ibs. of butter, 63 cents

1.2 bushels of potatoes, 50 cents

4 Ibs. sugar, 32 cents

Coffee and tea, 25 cents

milk, 2 cents per day

salt, pepper, vinegar, starch, soap, soda, yeast, cheese and eggs: 40 cents


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973);

Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982);

Daniel E. Sutherland, The Expansion of Everyday Life: 1860-1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1989).

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food and drink

food and drink are substances and liquids, respectively, which are essential to maintain life and growth. For the most part, historians have been interested in studying the changing patterns of the availability of food and drink together with the social relationships involved in their production, distribution, and consumption. For many centuries difficulties of preserving and transporting food obliged most people to rely upon food and drink produced locally. There were marked inequalities in access to food. However, even the rich, who normally enjoyed better food than others, shared the experience of seasonal swings between plenty and want.

Until the 18th cent. food production depended on the opportunities afforded by agriculture, soil geology, and geographical location near freshwater or sea fisheries. Climate and the seasons imposed further restrictions on the output of food. In the Middle Ages most people had a diet based on grains with a few root crops: meat played a small role because of the costs of production. This pattern began to change in Britain with the growth of towns and industrialization and the associated expansion of trade and transport both within the British Isles and overseas. Improvements in the quantity and quality of food available at relatively low cost developed because of advantageous imperial trade connections. This was marked by caricatures of food habits, for example the images by Hogarth of ‘the roast beef of Old England’ in the 18th cent. and, more recently, the self-conscious romanticization of regional and local cuisine.

The changes which accelerated after industrialization had begun with the farming innovations of the 16th and 17th cents. Hops introduced from Europe in the 16th cent. gave longer life and greater variety of flavours to ales frequently known as beers. Some root crops, most notably turnips, once confined to gardens, became part of newly devised elaborate field crop rotations. The cultivation of potatoes spread in the 17th cent. from the gardens of the wealthy to smallholdings of the poor and eventually into the field rotations. In northern and western areas of the British Isles potatoes replaced or equalled grain in the diets of the poor. In southern Britain, potatoes only became part of the staple diet of the poor during the early 19th cent. when the rising cost of wheaten bread obliged people to change.

Until the 19th cent. ensuring a variety and an adequate supply of food throughout the year necessitated using the traditional preserving techniques of drying, salting, and pickling. During the 19th cent. increasing supplies of cheap imported sugar enabled preserves and conserves to move from the pantries of the well-off to a much wider public. A further major innovation was the canning process, made possible by the introduction of safe and cheap thin sheet steel coated with tin. Chemical additives at the same time increased the availability of food and drink. After the mid-19th cent., railways and steamships with refrigerated or controlled atmospheres made possible cheap, regular, and reliable distribution of greater varieties and quantities of food and drink. Exotic fruits such as grapefruit and bananas had become common by the beginning of the 20th cent. These developments in trade and technology removed seasonal restrictions on food availability and choice.

Patterns of food consumption depend greatly on income as well as fashion and taste. Inequalities remained with inadequate diets for the poor. For those with adequate financial resources, the variety and quality of food and drink available became greater than ever previously recorded. Mass media promoted sales of food and drink by using brand names in establishing markets and, in the later 20th cent., freezers and microwave ovens in the home added to the choices of meals available to consumers.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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