Food and Drink

views updated May 29 2018


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

Food and Drink

views updated May 23 2018


During the first half of the nineteenth century, American food was a local affair. Apart from certain imports such as tea, coffee, and spices, Americans tended to eat what was at hand: Marylanders ate their oysters, Hoosiers enjoyed their corn, Plains Indians continued to live off dwindling buffalo herds, southern slaves were kept to a diet of hog and hominy, and western settlers as memorialized in Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), ate the local dust right along with the victuals: "Colonel Cyrus Jones's eating palace . . . opened up on the world as a stage upon the audience. You sat in Omaha's whole sight and dined, while Omaha's dust came and settled upon the refreshments" (p. 148). Until reliable refrigeration and transportation became widely available, Americans grew, raised, hunted, cooked, preserved, and ate food that was indigenous to their particular region, while food making was a daily, full-time occupation for many.

After the civil war, however, with the completion of railway lines to western territories—and the development of the icebox car—regional food gained a national market: the territories shipped grain to the east; Florida shipped fruit to the north; and Chicago received its first fresh lobster from Boston. Meat, milk, fish, fruits, and vegetables could now be transported from the country to the city, from one state to another, and by 1869, when Chinese laborers drove home the last spike of the transcontinental railroad stretching from New England to California, the very first boxcar of fresh fruit made its way from the West Coast to the East. Thus, an American gastronome could count on variety. In Mark Twain's fictional account of a European tour, A Tramp Abroad (1880), his narrator expresses a distaste for what he deems the "monotonous variety of UNSTRIKING dishes" characteristic of European cookery and yearns for the diverse foodstuff of his native country: soft-shell crabs from the Chesapeake, turtle soup from Philadelphia, broiled Virginia bacon, Baltimore duck, San Francisco mussels, Connecticut shad, Southern-style fried chicken, and all-American (i.e., salted) butter. "A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery would not starve to death suddenly in Europe," observes Twain, "but I think he would gradually waste away, and eventually die."

With the advent of a national market and consumer interest in diverse fare, the American food economy shifted from subsistence and local production to profit-driven, mechanical production—from the homemade to the industrial. Although canned fish and vegetables had appeared as early as 1825 (when the first patent was granted for the tin can), the expanding railroad networks made the tinning of salmon, tomatoes, strawberries, and corn a lucrative business. "Canned foods now became status symbols," notes Leslie Brenner in American Appetite, "since they meant one could eat things out of season or locale, a luxury previously reserved only for the very wealthy" (p. 16). Condensed milk and baking powder first appeared in 1856, and packaged yeast was introduced in 1868, inaugurating an era of commercially made bread. In essence, then, "American" cuisine quickly became commercial.


American cuisine assumed its modern form as Civil War soldiers came home and asked their mothers and spouses to make them the foods they had become accustomed to on the front lines—that is, canned foods. The war had spurred the industrialized North to produce grains, vegetables, fruits, and meat in ever more efficient ways, which led to such technological developments as the mechanical harvester, condensed liquids such as blackberry juice, and tin cans fused not by hand but by machines. "By 1870," explain Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, "the nation was consuming thirty million cans of food annually. During the decade which followed, the product of the canneries increased, in terms of value, by 200 percent" (p. 190).

In other words, "American" cuisine became synonymous with mass-produced food that was prepackaged, often precooked, and entirely uniform. Hence the many commercial success stories during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth: John T. Dorrance, a chemist, concentrated canned soups under his partner's name, at the Joseph Campbell Preserve Company; Henry J. Heinz, a salesman, eventually developed fifty-seven varieties of bottled condiments; Gail Borden sold condensed milk to the federal government for consumption by the military; Philip Danforth Armour pushed for refrigerator cars to ship his Chicago beef; and J. H. Kraft packaged cheese wedges in identical foil packets and sold them door-to-door.

Even the kitchen became a site of mass-produced wonder. The wood-burning stove was replaced by gas and then electric ranges; the apple parer became a universal kitchen implement; and, in large part thanks to Fannie Farmer's 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, which published cookbook measurement standards for the first time, measuring cups and bowls became regular kitchen tools. In other words, both food and its preparation became professionalized, with "amateur" homemakers and servants turning to the expertise of cooking schools and the national food industry. As a result, mass-produced food became a symbol of purity, health, consistency, ease, and economy to a consumer group of largely middle- and working-class Americans.

Yet despite Americans' reliance on consistent, commercialized food, homemade fare continued to have appeal, especially if it was feminized and racialized. Even during World War I, when industrialized, sanitized edibles and the high-tech kitchen were marks of America's economic and social progress, Willa Cather romanticized "real" down-home Nebraska meals in her novel My Ántonia (1918): "On Sundays [grandmother] gave us as much chicken as we could eat, and on other days we had ham or bacon or sausage meat. She baked either pies or cake for us every day, unless, for a change, she made my favourite pudding, striped with currants and boiled in a bag" (p. 45). The emphasis here on maternal abundance, especially in meats and the extravagance of sweets baked every day, marks a fundamental contradiction in the American food culture of the period—between nostalgia for the homemade food of the past and a glorification of the standardized, nutritious, and hygienic food of the present. This contradiction became part of the mythos of modern-day American food as well, where food preparation by women and nonprofessionals is often attributed to industrialized foods to make them appear "authentic."

In turn, after the Civil War, as more white, upper- and middle-class households employed servants, the black female domestic, known as the "Mammy," was increasingly exalted for her cooking—a cookery that was depicted as handed down from generation to generation, improvised, never written down, and almost mythic. As the nation moved from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, the figure of the Mammy served to bridge the cultural gap between the plantation South and the highly industrialized North, especially as American consumerism became molded by national advertising. "Advertisers of certain processed foods engaged in commodity fetishism," writes Alice A. Deck, "whereby the black cook's face appeared on the box of pancake flour to suggest that she would be going home with the consumer as a spiritual guide during the cooking process" (p. 70). Thus companies that made processed foods such as Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour for consumption by middle-class housewives appropriated femininity and blackness to sell their products—qualities antithetical to an industry modeled on white, masculine entrepreneurship and professionalism.


Thanks to the proliferation of new food technologies and food availability in the second half of the nineteenth century, gastronomic reformers abounded. After Louis Pasteur's discovery of disease-causing bacteria in cows and chickens in the mid-1870s, America experienced its first nationwide "health craze." Of course, food reformers had been preaching their doctrines in antebellum America as well, but with the discovery of food-borne bacteria in tandem with new mass media that enabled writers and orators access to a wider audience, health food enthusiasts such as Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943) gained a national following. At Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanatorium for the dyspeptic in Michigan, Kellogg touted the restorative qualities of natural foods, particularly bran, believing that if people chewed tough, dry cereal, they would keep their teeth strong, their bowels healthy, and their systems free from the bacteria that, Kellogg believed, lived in the colon of anyone who consumed meat. His 1877 grain mix called Granose was in essence the first Kellogg cereal, and a patient of his, Charles Post (1854–1914), soon after developed Grape-Nuts (first called "Elijah's Manna"). Post went on to invent Post Toasties, Kellogg his famous Toasted Corn Flakes, and the notion of selling good health via commercialized foods was born.

In the two decades following the initial successes of Kellogg and Post, the Department of Agriculture published specific data gathered by the chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater (1844–1907) on the nutritive value of food, thereby originating terms now taken for granted, such as "calories," "dietary fat," and "carbohydrates." Food historian Harvey Levenstein explains that from 1880 to 1930, the American middle class turned to such scientists as Atwater who first created and then propagated the principles of what came to be called the "New Nutrition." "These taught that all foods could be broken down into proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and that one should eat only as much of each of them as the body required. The idea that the body's energy needs could be measured in calories took hold, along with the notion that one would gain weight if one ingested more of these than the body burned" (p. 9). This development, in conjunction with the vegetable diet and temperance movements, led to the establishment of domestic science at the turn of the century. (The modern-day legacy of this movement is the home economics class.) Self-made nutritionists such as Sarah Rorer (1849–1937), the 1890s "Queen of the Kitchen," jumped on the domestic science bandwagon and founded a century-long obsession with weight. Rorer, for instance, believed each unnecessary pound was a pound of disease and argued that a person's stomach mucus accumulated each night, leading to obesity if combined with a breakfast of eggs, cheese, and bacon; thus, Rorer insisted that fruit and cereal were the only digestible morning fare. Thus, the regulation of food and the body converged with pseudoscientific discourse, which led to a widespread reformist impulse to manage lower-class bodies, diseased bodies, sexualized bodies, raced bodies, women's bodies, infants' bodies, and soldiers' bodies via the "scientific" control of food in industry, cookbooks, schools, and welfare programs.

Throughout this period, high on the list of those in need of reform were citizens who imbibed too much alcohol—who were "intemperate." With the formation in 1895 of the Anti-Saloon League and similar organizations, particularly the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874), the campaign to prohibit alcohol went national. Popular authors and religious advocates linked alcohol to the working class and moral laxity. For instance, the novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), interviewed for Our Famous Women in 1884, adopted the temperance movement as one of her pet reforms, part and parcel with her overall interest in "uplifting" her readers, especially young women who might persuade their husbands to stop drinking. "[Phelps] saw how intemperance on Eastern Point added a cruel weight to the hard lot of fishermen's families," explains the interviewer, Elizabeth Spring, "and through her efforts a Reform Club of sixty-five members was sustained there. A club-room had been otherwise secured; it was brightened with pictures and music; addresses were delivered and sermons preached to the men; but her personal work was of a deeper and more wearing sort. . . . They came to her house with their hopes and despair, their temptations and troubles" (pp. 576–577). Thus, "improving" the body came with the promise that, if certain populations could control their desire for alcohol, they could acquire the "deeper" and "more wearing" morality of a reader, of someone (like Phelps) who had already learned how to improve the mind and heart via reading. In this way, the culture of letters was directly linked to the cult of the American body.


Charles Dickens, in his 1842 travelogue American Notes, writes that he "never could find out any difference between a [dinner] party at Boston and a party in London, saving that at the former place all assemblies are held at more rational hours; that the conversation may possibly be a little louder and more cheerful; and a guest is usually expected to ascend to the very top of the house to take his cloak off; that he is certain to see, at every dinner, an unusual amount of poultry on the table; and at every supper, at least two mighty bowls of hot stewed oysters, in any one of which a half-grown Duke of Clarence might be smothered easily" (p. 60). Indeed, from mid-century on, abundant oysters were not only swallowed at posh oyster parties, they were sold by street peddlers, carried by oyster express wagons, and served in oyster houses in Baltimore, New York, and Boston. Thus oysters crossed class boundaries: one could down them with the lawyer and legislator Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, yet one could also buy and eat them right off the street.

There were foods specifically attached to haute cuisine, however, especially as upscale restaurants became fashionable after the Civil War. The two gastronomic centers on the East Coast were Boston and New York. Boston was touted for upscale New England cooking, New York for its enduring dedication to French cuisine. During the rise of rampant restaurantism, certain hotels were known for their divine (if expensive) fare. In Boston, the Parker House was extolled for its rolls and filet mignon, while the Winter Place Hotel (which eventually became the Locke-Ober) developed a "cross" menu that was both French and thoroughly Bostonian (including a dressed-up clam chowder). In New York, one needed a top hat and tails to eat at the Ritz-Carlton, but the finest restaurant—and the one that became a fixture of New York cuisine for 150 years—was the French Delmonico's, which opened in 1832. Delmonico's made pretension fashionable by printing its menus in French, listing the names of diners in newspaper society columns, providing live music and fresh flowers, and serving such exotic vegetables as eggplant. Even Dickens was moved to sing America's praises in 1868 after eating Delmonico's petites timbales à la Dickens.

Haute cuisine was not limited to restaurants, however. Famous literati, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to John Greenleaf Whittier, were feted at swank birthday dinners (Mark Twain himself gave Whittier a famous birthday dinner in 1877). In turn, depictions of domestic food within the pages of American literature ranged from the countrified nostalgic (as in My Ántonia) to middle-class lunches (the title dentist in the novel McTeague (1899), by Frank Norris, is served "sausages, . . . with mashed potatoes. . .; chocolate, which Trina adored; and a side dish or two—a salted herring or a couple of artichokes or a salad" [p. 142]) to the private tables of the urban elite, often representative of Americans' apparent need to simulate British foodways to gain cultural credibility. The Age of Innocence (1920), by Edith Wharton, is replete with lavish gastronomic descriptions that reveal the aridness of New York society throughout the 1870s:

A big dinner, with a hired chef and two borrowed footmen, with Roman punch, roses from Henderson's, and menus on gilt-edged cards, was . . . not to be lightly undertaken. . . . The Roman punch made all the difference; not in itself but by its manifold implications—since it signified either canvas-backs or terrapin, two soups, a hot and a cold sweet, full décolletage with short sleeves, and guests of a proportionate importance. (P. 327)

This paradox of spiritual famine within somatic plenty is perhaps best rendered by William Dean Howells in his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), in which Lapham, a new city professional from the Vermont countryside, must negotiate the rituals of a Boston dinner party.

It was not an elaborate dinner; but Lapham was used to having everything on the table at once, and this succession of dishes bewildered him; he was afraid perhaps he was eating too much. He now no longer made any pretense of not drinking his wine, for he was thirsty, and there was no more water, and he hated to ask for any. (P. 199)

Thus food, especially as presented in the home, was a potent symbol for American writers: simultaneously, it bespoke an ethos of plenty—a nation with grandmothers who could make more chicken than children could eat—as well as a contradiction between the pastoral values inherent in amber waves of grain and the "bankrupt" values of Roman punch and wine for water.

Anglo-American cuisine had carried the symbolic weight of class, race, gender, religion, and region ever since 1630, when William Bradford and his Puritan settlers arrived at Plymouth and began appropriating Native American foodways. But the extensive industrialization and rise of mass transportation and advertising that occurred between 1870 and 1920 meant that North American food came to symbolize national values, not just regional identity. In essence, then, what is now called "American" cuisine originated with the technological, industrial, and economic shifts that occurred just after the outbreak of the Civil War—and that continue today in the forms of fast food, chain restaurants, the microwave, the frozen dinner, the boxed cake mix, and—paradoxically—Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, and the Frugal Gourmet.

See alsoDomestic and Sentimental Fiction; Health and Medicine; Temperance


Primary Works

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes. 1842. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Farmer, Fannie. The Original Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,1896: A Facsimile. New York: H. L. Levin Associates, 1973.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. 1885. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Norris, Frank. McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. 1899. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Spring, Elizabeth T. "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps." Our FamousWomen: Comprising the Lives and Deeds of American Women Who Have Distinguished Themselves in Literature, Science, Art, Music, and the Drama, or Are Famous as Heroines, Patriots, Orators, Educators, Physicians, Philanthropists, Etc., pp. 560–580. Hartford, Conn.: A. D. Worthington and Company, 1884.

Twain, Mark. A Tramp Abroad. London: Chatto & Windus, 1880.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. 1920. New York: Collier Books, Macmillan, 1968, 1993.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian, a Horseman of the Plains. 1902. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1911.

Secondary Works

Brenner, Leslie. American Appetite: The Coming of Age of aCuisine. New York: Bard, 1999.

Deck, Alice A. "'Now Then—Who Said Biscuits?': The Black Woman Cook as Fetish in American Advertising, 1905–1953." In Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, pp. 69–93. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Near a Thousand Tables: AHistory of Food. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Levenstein, Harvey. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History ofEating in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Levenstein, Harvey. Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Root, Waverley, and Richard de Rochemont. Eating inAmerica: A History. Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1995.

Jennifer Cognard-Black

Food and Drink

views updated Jun 27 2018

Food and Drink


Bread. The Mesopotamians based their diet on barley, from which they made unleavened bread and beer. (It has been noted that eating only barley could lead to severe vitamin deficiencies.) They also used other grains—including millet, emmer wheat, and rye—to make bread or cereal. They ground grain with portable millstones and then mixed the flour with water (usually without any leavening agent) to produce various kinds of breads. In the grave of queen Pu-abi (circa 2500 b.c.e.) in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, archaeologists found pieces of unleavened bread made from finely ground flour. Breads were described as first quality, ordinary, black, or white.

Flavored Breads. Breads were also made by beating in fats such as sesame oil, lard, mutton “butter,” and fish oil. Occasionally, flavoring was added to the oils to disguise the fact that the hot climate of Mesopotamia had made them rancid. Sometimes honey, ghee (clarified butter), sesame, milk, fruit juice, cheese, or fruit were added to the dough. Of course, only the highest-quality breads and cakes were deemed fit for the king’s table.

Beer. Mesopotamians made beer from malted barley (barley seeds that have been permitted to sprout); they did not have hops. Beer was an important part of the daily diet and is included on the ration lists for palace workers, who received the equivalent of from one quart to one gallon of beer per day, depending on their importance. In taverns, people drank beer from a common vat, usually through drinking tubes with small perforated holes on the ends to act as strainers to remove solids from the beer. Beer could be made all year round.

Wine. Unlike beer, wine could be made only once a year, when the grapes ripened. There are no surviving texts describing how wine was manufactured. When it was kept in a sealed jar, wine had a longer shelf life than beer. A wine jar typically held several gallons. Wine was described as an expensive and rare commodity, produced in the dry-farming agricultural areas to the north and west of Babylonia. Many wines were named for their place of origin; even in the mid first millennium b.c.e., wine was referred to as “mountain beer,” or “bright wine like the uncountable waters of the river.” Though wine consumption increased over time, it continued to be a luxury item, served only to the gods and the wealthy. Tablets from eighth century b.c.e. Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) describe the wine ration for the royal household as less than a half pint per person. Around 1800 b.c.e., women ran wineshops. Some priestesses were prohibited from entering them on penalty of death. Other grape products included grape juice, wine vinegar, and raisins.

Dairy Products. The Sumerians also drank milk from cows, goats, and ewes. Milk soured quickly in the hot climate of southern Mesopotamia. Ghee (clarified butter) was less perishable than milk. Sumerians also made a round, chalky cheese that could be transformed back to sour milk by grating it and adding water. There were many other kinds of cheese as well, including a white cheese (for the king), “fresh” cheese, and flavored, sweetened, and sharp cheeses. Other dairy products included yogurt and butter.

From the Persian period on, sheep’s milk was made into a kind of cottage cheese.

Meat. Mutton, beef, and goat were expensive meats. The gods and the king were given large portions of them. Among the many reforms and innovations introduced during the reign of king Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e.) was the establishment of Drehem (ancient Puzrish-Dagan), a huge redistribution center in the vicinity of Nippur for livestock and animal products. Tens of thousands of cuneiform administrative tablets document the movement of several hundred thousand animals through the site each year. Animals were delivered alive as taxes from the provinces and redistributed to temple and palace personnel in Nippur and, apparently, in Ur and Uruk. Some animals were dead on arrival, and this fact too was noted in the documents. A letter from Old Babylonian period Mari (circa eighteenth century b.c.e.) on the middle Euphrates mentions an ox intended as a palace offering that was so fat it could not stand. There was no taboo against the consumption of pork; pig bones are found throughout the ancient Near East, particularly in areas with wet climates. During the third millennium b.c.e. pigs were tended in large herds; the food they scavenged was supplemented by barley feed. Fatty meat was prized but in short supply, so pork was valued. Horseflesh was also eaten, and dogs were fed dead asses. Geese and ducks were raised for meat and eggs. In the first millennium b.c.e. the chicken was brought to Mesopotamia from Persia.

Fish. The rivers and canals of Mesopotamia, as well as the seas beyond, were filled with many species of fish, turtles, and eggs, which were an important source of protein. Fishermen worked in teams using large nets or individually using smaller nets or lines and hooks. Nets were typically woven from plant fibers. Hooks were made of metal or bone. Small pieces of netting found attached to terra-cotta sinkers at Khafaje were dated circa 2700 b.c.e.; two copper barbed hooks found at Ur were dated circa 2600 b.c.e. Fish were also raised in fish ponds or reservoirs. The catch might be sold alive or preserved by salting and drying. As with any food, fish was an appropriate sacrifice for the gods. At Eridu, large quantities of fish bones were discovered on the floor of the late Ubaid-period temple (circa 4200 b.c.e.). These bones are likely the remains of offerings to the local deity, who in historical times was Enki (Ea), the wise creator god and the god of the underground body of fresh water (apsu). Strings of fish, “the wealth of the apsu,” continued to be offered to the gods in the first millennium b.c.e. The Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 b.c.e.) “threw into the sea a golden fish (and) a golden crab with a (model of a) gold ship (as an offering to Ea).”

Vegetables and Fruits. Soups were thickened with a flour base made of chickpeas, lentils, barley flour, or emmer flour. Members of the onion family—including leeks, shallots, and garlic—were part of the ancient Mesopotamian diet. Lentils, chickpeas, a variety of lettuces, cabbage, summer and winter cucumbers (described as either sweet or bitter), radishes, beets, and a kind of turnip were eaten raw or boiled in water. Some fruits were also eaten raw. Fruits commonly grown in Mesopotamia included dates, apples, pears, grapes, figs, quinces, plums, apricots, cherries, mulberries, melons, and pomegranates.


One of the three known culinary tablets from the Old Babylonian period (circa 1750 b.c.e.), now at Yale University, comprises twenty-five simple recipes for broths made from a variety of meats and vegetables. Unfortunately* the precise meaning of some technical terms and names for ingredients is not known.

To prepare amursanu-pigeon in broth

Slaughter the pigeon, soak it in hot water, and pluck it. Wash with cold water and skin the neck … cut out the ribs … remove the gizzard and pluck (that is, the heart, liver, and lungs) … split and peel the gizzard. Cut open and chop the intestines.

To prepare the broth, put the bird, gizzard, pluck, intestines … head, and a piece of mutton in a cauldron and heat … Remove from heat, wash with cold water and wipe carefully. Sprinkle with salt and place all ingredients in a pot Prepare water, add a piece of fat with grizzle removed, vinegar as required … “groats,” leek and garlic mashed with onion. … Let simmer.

When cooked, pound and mash together to add to the dish leek, garlic, andabsbu) and kisimmu … or mashed and pounded baru.. … Remove the pigeon from the pot, wipe … roast the legs, covered with dough, at high heat. …

When everything is cooked, remove the meat from the fire, and before the broth cools … serve it accompanied by garlic, greens and vinegar. The broth can also be eaten later, by itself. Carve and serve.

Source: Jean Bottéro, Textes culinaire Mésopotamiens = Mesopotamian Culinary Texts, Mesopotamian Civilizations, volume 6 (Winons Lake, lnd.: Eisenbrauns 1995), p. 12,

“Infernal Cuisine.”. During the first millennium b.c.e. there was a professional known as the aluzinnu a sort of clown or buffoon. When asked what he could do, he replied that nothing of the craft of the incantation-priest

(ashipu) escaped him—whereupon he burned down the house he was fumigating. When asked about what dishes he would like to prepare or taste, his replies included “Mule dung with garlic, and chopped straw with sour milk” and, “as a warm dish, donkey bowels stuffed with dog excrement and fly specks.”

Methods of Cooking. Breads, cakes, meats, and soups all required cooking. Meat could be cured, dried, roasted, boiled, and “touched with fire.” Fish was described as “touched by fire” and “placed upon the fire.” Both phrases may refer to broiling over glowing coals. Some breads were also cooked in the coals, and a grill was used for cooking over the flames. Stews and soups were cooked in pots placed on the fire. The Sumerians used several kinds of ovens, including a clay oven. The oven might be located within the house or in the courtyard.

Cooking and Serving Utensils. Many words for cooking pots, made of clay or metal, have survived. Cooking utensils included a copper frying pan and a sieve pot. Pots were made with small handles through which a rope could be passed to hang them out of the reach of rats and mice. Ladles were common cooking utensils. A mortar and pestle made of baked clay or stone was used for pounding some cereals and legumes. Hand mills made from imported volcanic stone, some dating back to the prehistoric period, have been found in private homes. Food was served from copper or wooden bowls and earthenware jugs or pots. Plates, bowls, and cups were made of pottery, wood, metal, or stone. Jars came in various sizes. The designs of eating and drinking vessels varied greatly over time. Earthenware and metal drinking flasks were used, as were forks, knives, and spoons. A large number of single-pronged bone

Food Preservation and Storage. Many foods were preserved. Cereals were easy to keep in pottery vessels. Legumes could be dried in the sun. A variety of fruits were pressed into cakes. Fish and meat were preserved by salting, drying, immersion in oil, and smoking. Ice was brought from the highlands and stored in icehouses for cooling beverages. Storage containers ranged from small wooden or leather cases to large wooden chests. Two particular sorts of wooden crates were used for vegetables. Some storage containers were made from reeds, which were sometimes waterproofed with bitumen.


In the Greek and Latin translations of the biblical book of Daniel appears a brief additional tale that ridicules the practice of presenting daily food offerings to the statues of the gods. According to this story, each day the statue of Bel (Marduk) in the temple in Babylon was presented with twelve bushels of the finest flour, forty sheep, and more than fifty gallons of wine. The prophet Daniel, a confidant of king Cyrus II (538–530 b.c.e.) determined to demonstrate to the naive king that in fact the temple staff of seventy priests and their families—not the deity—consumed the daily offerings. After the offering table had been set, Daniel ordered that ashes be sprinkled throughout the temple, whereupon the king closed and sealed the temple doors. When the temple doors were unsealed and opened the next day, footprints in the dust—those of the priests and their families—were seen leading from a hidden door to the offering table from which all of the previous night’s offerings had been taken. Infuriated by the deception, the king ordered the arrest and execution of the priests and their families and then permitted Daniel to destroy the statue of the god and its temple.

In reality, the king would have been completely aware of the fact that the priests consumed the daily food offerings in the temple; in fact, the rights to portions of these offerings—temple prebends—were for centuries bought and sold among the members of the Babylonian priestly elite. The biblical author’s intent was to offer an object lesson supporting the prohibition against idolatry.

Source: Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah: The Additions, The Anchor Bible. volume 44(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979) forks have been discovered at Godin Tepe in west central Iran. Knives, with blades made of bronze or iron, were common. Spoons were made of bitumen, metal, wood, terra-cotta, and occasionally ivory. These utensils were probably used for preparation and serving; people usually picked up their food with their hands or with a piece of bread.

The Yale Culinary Tablets. Three Old Babylonian period tablets in the Babylonian Collection at Yale University include thirty-five different recipes for dishes probably meant for the elite and the gods. Many of the dishes are cooked in water with fat added. Whether these dishes are broths, soups, sauces, or vegetable porridges is not stated in the tablets. Meat broths are often identified by the kind of animal from which the meat in the broth came: venison, gazelle, goat, kid, lamb, or ram; organ meat, including liver and spleen, is often used. Several different kinds of birds, such as doves and francolins, are also used. Various mineral, plant, and animal products are used as seasoning. Some recipes specify their geographical or cultural origin, for example, “Elamite” or “Assyrian.” The recipes range from simple

meat and vegetable broths to more complex dishes, which use a wide variety of ingredients and additional cooking techniques. Some of the recipes recommend “side dishes” and garnishes. Since only scribes were able to read and write, these recipes would have had to be read to the cook. Furthermore, the recipes do not include the amounts of ingredients or cooking times; perhaps this information was learned by observation and oral instruction.

Cooks. The Yale Culinary Tablets mention professional cooks, identifying them as “the great cook” and “the chief cook.” As a mark of his status, one chef had a seal presented to him personally by the king. Little work was done by women in royal kitchens.

Food for the Gods. The Sumerians bragged about their advanced skills of cookery and considered their cuisine superior to that of desert nomads, whom the Sumerians believed were uncivilized. Modern scholars are unable to evaluate their culinary skills, however, because the only rations lists that have survived are those for meals served to the gods (and later eaten by the temple staff). According to the ritual texts, the gods (and presumably most people) ate twice a day, early in the morning and at sunset.

Food for Ordinary People. In a text describing a student’s schooldays, a mother gives her son two bread rolls. The ration lists for workers from about 2000 b.c.e. noted that working women received half the rations of working men (forty to sixty liters of barley). Old Babylonian lists of food rations show that people of lower status received fish; meat was reserved for the upper class.


Robert McCormick Adams, Heartland of Cities: Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Jean Bottéro, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Bottéro, Textes culinaire Mésopotamiens = Mesopotamian Culinary Texts, Mesopotamian Civilizations, volume 6 (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisen-brauns, 1995).

Erich Ebeling, Tod und Leben nach den Vorstellungen der Babylonier (Berlin & Leipzig: De Gruyter, 1931).

Louis Francis Hartman and A. Leo Oppenheim, On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia, supplement to the Journal of the American Oriental Society, no. 10 (Baltimore: American Oriental Society, 1950).

Brian Hesse, “Animal Husbandry and Human Diet in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), I: 203–222.

Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

Armas Salonen, Die Fischerei im alten Mesopotamien (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakademia, 1970).

Marten Stol, “Private Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), I: 485–501.

Food and Drink

views updated Jun 11 2018

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).

Food and Drink

views updated May 11 2018

Food and Drink

Most of the foods and beverages available to Europeans of the Renaissance would be familiar to anyone today. However, the ideas people had about food and nutrition differed considerably from modern thinking. Renaissance eating and drinking habits depended partly on what was available in a certain region or at a particular time of year. But they were also based on religious rules and on the medical ideas of the ancient Greeks. Class differences also played a role. The elegant banquets and expensive delicacies enjoyed by the upper classes set them apart from the common people.

The Renaissance Diet. For people of all classes, bread was the mainstay of the diet. Bread was more than a food: before the introduction of tableware, people used it as a plate or bowl, placing other foods on top of it. Wealthier Europeans preferred fine white bread made from processed flour, while poorer folk ate less refined brown bread containing more wheat bran. Coarser bread could also contain barley, rye, or even beans or chestnuts when times were hard. The diet also included cooked grains, which were easier and cheaper to prepare than bread because they did not require an oven. Southern Europeans ate porridge of cooked barley or millet. In the north, grains such as spelt and oats were more common. Rice, a relative newcomer to Europe, grew mainly in the Lombardy region of Italy.

Beverages also varied by region. Wine was the most important drink in the south, which had whole regions devoted to producing and trading it. Beer and ale were the most common beverages in the north, where many households brewed their own. Apple-growing regions in England and France favored cider as their chief drink. People rarely drank water by itself, probably for fear that it would make them sick, but they did mix it with wine. Southern and northern Europe also differed in their use of fat. Olive oil dominated in the south, butter in the north.

Renaissance cooks saw meat as the most desirable part of the diet. In fact, physicians warned against eating too many fruits or vegetables. The poorer a family, the greater role vegetables and grains played in its diet. Beans, cabbage, garlic, and onions were particularly associated with the lower classes. Peaches and melons, by contrast, became popular in the courts.

People raised cows, sheep, and goats both for their meat and for their milk, which could be made into cheese. Pigs were also an important source of meat throughout Europe. Preserving pork in such forms as sausages and hams allowed food from the fall slaughter to be eaten throughout the year. Families raised chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons for food, and the practice of hunting wild birds or other game was common throughout Europe.

Fish also played an extremely important role in the diet. People in the Mediterranean region and on the Atlantic and Baltic seacoasts consumed local fish and preserved it for export to other regions. The main preserved fish were herring, cod, sardines, anchovies, and botargo (salted belly of tuna). Rivers produced salmon and trout, and some communities had fishponds. Whale and porpoise meat were among the most expensive and fashionable foods of the era.

To flavor their food, Renaissance cooks used native European herbs such as parsley, dill, sage, oregano, and mustard as well as spices imported from Asia and Africa, including pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. They also valued sugar as a "spice." The highly prized spices were a major trade item, and the search for better routes to their sources was one reason for the voyages of pioneering explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. However, it is unlikely that Europeans used spices to hide the odor of spoiled meat, as some have suggested. Anyone who could afford costly spices could also afford fresh meat. Instead, the rich used spices heavily to show off their wealth.

Eating Patterns. For the average European, the calendar of Christian holidays determined patterns of fasting and feasting. For example, during Lent—the 40-day period of strict religious observance leading up to Easter—good Christians were not supposed to eat meat, butter, or eggs. People could and did bend these rules, and the wealthy turned to rare and exotic fish and lavish displays of fruit to ease the hardships of Lent. Shorter periods of fasting occurred throughout the year.

Immediately before Lent came a holiday period called Carnival, during which people consumed the meat that they could not eat during Lent. In contrast to Lent, Carnival was a time of self-indulgence and gluttony. Some Carnival festivals included a skit in which the spirit of Carnival, a fat man carrying sausages, battled the spirit of Lent, an old thin woman carrying a herring.

Other Christian holidays also provided occasions for feasting throughout the year. In addition, many towns and cities held lavish feasts in honor of their patron saints. Popular stories or artworks sometimes defined happiness as a magical land of plenty or an eternal feast, where people could eat as much as they wished without labor and where rivers of wine flowed endlessly. Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, for example, wrote of a mountain of Parmesan cheese.

Theories about nutrition also influenced eating patterns during the Renaissance. Renaissance medical thought was based on the theory of humors, inherited from ancient Greek and Arab physicians. According to this theory, human health required a balance among four fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, bile, and choler. Too much or too little of any of these fluids led to disease. Physicians believed that specific qualities of food could increase the production of certain humors. For example, they thought that spicy and salty foods promoted choler, the hot and dry humor. Renaissance cooks sometimes combined different foods to balance their various qualities. For instance, they might serve pork (cold and moist) with mustard (hot and dry) or sweet dishes (hot and moist) with sour sauces or condiments (cold and dry).

In addition to their humors, foods were believed to have certain effects on the body, such as aiding digestion or promoting sleep. For this reason people felt that it was important to eat foods in a certain order. However, medical authorities disagreed on the details, producing many contradictory lists of rules for serving different foods. Although Renaissance theories of nutrition are long out of date, they reflect a very modern concern with the connection between food and health.

The Art of Cookery. The cuisine of the early Renaissance did not differ very much from that of the Middle Ages. The first printed cookbook, On Right Pleasure, included several recipes borrowed from an older collection. Published in 1475, On Right Pleasure was the best-selling Renaissance book on the subject of food. The one major change that occurred at this time was the appearance of distinct regional styles of cooking. Unlike medieval* cuisine, which had been much the same throughout Europe, these new cooking styles reflected the ingredients and preferred flavor combinations of specific areas. Several cookbooks featuring the foods of different countries appeared, including the German Kuchenmeystery (1485), the English Boke of Cokery (1500), and the Italian Cookbook (1525).

The most massive Renaissance cookbook, Opera (Works), appeared in 1570. Its author, Bartolomeo Scappi, was chef to Pope Pius V. Scappi's position at one of Europe's leading courts gave him access to all the latest kitchen equipment, which he illustrated in his book. One of the new devices he mentioned was the fork, recently introduced as standard tableware. Scappi's hundreds of recipes show a clear break with medieval cuisine, and some recipes—especially for pastas and stews—approach their modern form.

Guides to managing kitchens and carving cooked meats became popular at European courts. One such book, published in 1581, explains how to present every dish from tiny fowl to exotic fruits. A 1549 book called Banquets, published by a member of the court of the Este family at Ferrara in Italy, reveals how elaborate Renaissance court meals could be. It describes feasts of hundreds of courses designed to dazzle guests with many textures and tastes. The great majority of Renaissance Europeans, however, would never experience such a meal. Although there is much less information available about the eating habits of the lower classes, it is clear that a glaring gap existed between upper- and lower-class meals, and this gap widened during the late Renaissance.

(See alsoAgriculture; Americas; Court; Fairs and Festivals; Medicine. )

Tasting the Americas

Columbus and other explorers brought many foods from the Americas back to Europe. Among these new items were chili peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn (also called maize), chocolate, turkey, allspice, and some kinds of squash and beans. Corn and potatoes became popular substitutes for wheat and other grains, but many Europeans avoided some of the new foods for a long time. Tomatoes, for example, did not catch on in northern Europe for centuries. Ironically, however, some writers on medical topics promoted the use of tobacco, another American product.

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

Food and Drink

views updated May 23 2018

Food and Drink


Diet. Rock paintings in the Sahara show that from early times domestic cattle and wild animals provided a stable source of food for West Africa. During the early part of the sixth century, people living along rivers and lakes caught fish and supplemented their diets by gathering wild vegetables and fruit. While some West Africans moved about in search of food, others domesticated animals—including cattle, goats, sheep, chickens, and dogs—and began to cultivate tropical crops such as millet, yams, and sorghum. Apart from hunting, fishing, and farming, people were also able to purchase food at local markets.

Fishing and Hunting. Some small fishing communities along the West African shoreline have existed since 1300. These fisherfolk exchanged ocean salt and dried fish with the farmers in the forests for yams, cattle, and goats. The people of Mali were great hunters and knew the secrets of the bush. Where crops grew plentifully and fishing or hunting was good, populations multiplied. The Songhai people were fishermen, farmers, and hunters—following complementary livelihoods. The dominant Songhai group,

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fishermen called Sorko, navigated the great river in canoes that they also used as war craft. Their fishing and fighting expeditions took them to a part of the river where they hunted herds of hippopotamuses and nests of crocodiles.

Domestic Livestock. The inhabitants of Zaghawa (in present-day eastern Chad and western Sudan) raised cows, goats, camels, and horses. The forest peoples kept livestock such as cattle, pigs, and poultry, supplementing their meat supply through hunting and trapping. In the western and central Sudanic region, cattle were a major source of meat and dairy products and were used daily for transporting goods. Some of the people of Mali, especially those who moved south from the Sahara, remained nomadic, raising cattle, sheep, and goats. In some parts of Mali, however, the pasturage was unsuitable for four-footed animals, and all quadrupeds introduced there died. The nomadic Fulani people raised cattle but ate little meat, subsisting more on milk and butter in order not to deplete their stock. The people of the Hausa states, however, worried less about depletion of livestock and were known for holding feasts.

Food Crops. Even before plants such as maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes were introduced from the New World after 1500, the forest peoples especially were predominantly cultivators, depending on root crops such as yams, cocoyam, and legumes. They also cultivated kola trees and acquired palm products from their forest environment. In the area stretching from the Gambia to western Liberia, swamp and upland rice were grown. This indigenous African rice, known as oryza glaberrima, is believed to have been first cultivated around the middle Niger. The people of the Kingdom of Zaghawa grew mainly beans and wheat. Archaeologists digging at the ancient city of Djenné have discovered that rice, sorghum, millet, and various wild swamp grasses were cultivated there.

Fruits and Herbs. Various kinds of fruit were consumed daily. Travelers over the Sahara ate meagerly, usually dates and thin rounds of bread baked on cooking stones. The baobab, a large gourd-like fruit containing a pleasant, cool-tasting pulp around its seeds, was associated with Sundiata’s victory over the Susu (1240) and thus popular in the Empire of Mali. To produce oil for cooking and other purposes, the Dogon, a people of the central plateau region of present-day Mali and Burkina Faso, pounded the fruit of the hannea acida tree. Groundnuts (peanuts) and their oil

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were consumed by the peoples of the Senegambia region, who also used palm oil for culinary purposes, as did the Jukun, especially around Calabar, in southeastern Nigeria. Fruits such as bananas were also grown and consumed as part of the daily diet. Kola nuts were chewed daily and exchanged for other commodities. People also made daily use of herbs, ingesting medicinal leaves to heal wounds and cure diseases. The knowledge of herbs was a specialized skill that was believed to be handed down by the gods.

Salt. What many West Africans needed most on a daily basis was salt. Because of the heat and humidity in much of the region people lost body salt quickly through perspiration and had to replace it. In coastal regions some salt was extracted from seawater, but most of the salt in West Africans’ diets was mined in the Sahara, at places such as Taghaza and Taodeni, and then transported in solid bars by Berber caravans to trading centers such as Timbuktu, where commodities such as salt and dates were traded for gold, grain, and kola nuts. The merchants of Mali took a small piece of salt, mixed it with a little water, and drank some every day. The Hausa, Yoruba, and Nupe people used trona (hydrated sodium bicarbonate) as a salt substitute and for medicine.

Water. Certainly, water could not be replaced as a necessary aspect of the daily dietary intake of West Africans. To the south of Lake Chad, there are traditions of a race of “giants,” the So (or São), who preceded the Kanuri inhabitants and made huge pots, which they used for storing water as well as for burials. Apart from acquiring water from naturally occurring rivers and lakes, West Africans also dug deep wells. The people of Audaghost had so much water that they could grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Culinary Duties. Although women were responsible for the culinary duties in most, if not all West African states, the elderly—such as old men in the city of Audaghost— were also food preparation enthusiasts. Cooking meals required substantial effort, especially when pestles were used to pound foodstuffs. A Nok pestle has been scientifically dated to around 875.


J. F. Ade. Ajayi and Ian Espie, eds., vf Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press / London: Nelson, 1969).

Anthony Atmore and Gillian Stacey, Black Kingdoms, Black Peoples: The West African Heritage (London: Orbis, 1979).

G. R. Crone, trans, and ed., The Voyages ofCadamosto and Other Documents on Western Africa in the Second Half of the Fifteenth Century (London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1937).

Naomi Mitchison, African Heroes (London: Bodley Head, 1968).

food and drink

views updated Jun 08 2018

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