Everyday Life: Food

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Everyday Life: Food


Ethnic Tastes in a National Market. During the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s two opposing trends were visible in American eating habits. Regional and ethnic differences powerfully influenced selection and preparation of food. Where they livedthe western frontier, the rural South, the East, the Midwest, the Southwestand where they leftGreece, Italy, Central Europe, or Africashaped what a family ate. Their style of food preparation linked people to their pasts and to their ethnic, regional histories. The second and competing trend in the United States was a move toward standardization, as improvements in transportation and preservation helped to create national markets for brand-name foods. Favorites from one region could be transported to others without spoiling, giving rise to a distinctive American diet.


While most nineteenth-century Americans ate simply, the upper classes dined lavishly at elegant Franch restaurants where menus often listed 70 to 120 items. Established in 1832, Delmonicos Restaurant in New York City set the standard for elegant dining during the 1880s and 1890s, a time when eight-to-ten-course banquets featuring vast amounts of food were typical among wealthy diners. In 1880 a Delmonicos dinner honoring Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, soon to became the Democratic presidential candidate, began with raw oysters, a choice of two soups, an hors doeuvre, and a fish course. The next coursesaddle of lamb and filet of beefwas followed by chicken wings with green peas and lamb chops with beans and mushroom-stuffed artichokes. After terrapin en casserole à la Maryland, the diners were served sorbet to cleanse the palate before tackling on the roast course of canvasback duck and quail. Desserts included timbale Madison, various kinds of ice cream, whipped creams, jellied dishes, banana mousse, and various elaborate pastry dishes. The dinner ended with coffe and liqueurs served with fruit and petits fours. As this menu suggests, plumpness was fashionable in the 1880s.

Source: Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York & Oxford: Oxford university Press, 1988).

Southern Food. The American South produced some of the most enduringly popular dishes in the United States, many of them influenced by the cooking practices slaves brought with them from Africa. For centuries I many poor southerners subsided on the three Msmeat

(sowbelly), meal (corn), and molasses. Goobers, or peanuts, and yams were major fare in the South as were corn products such as hominy, grits, cornmeal mush, hush puppies, and cornbread, as well as cowpeas, collards, and turnip greens. Chicken was the favorite food for special occasions with pork a close second. Louisiana Creole and Cajun cuisine introduced gumbo with celery, tomatoes, and bell peppers, and soups or stews thickened with okra into the national diet. New Orleans developed a unique mix of French, Spanish, African, and Native American foods that relied heavily on spices, crawfish, and redfish.

Western and Midwestern Food. As they traveled west settlers survived on a limited, monotonous diet of heavy, greasy foods, mainly fatback (meat from the back of a hog), cornbread, and perhaps a handful of seasonal vegetables. With the establishment of family farms the

diet of westerners and midwesterners improved. By the 1890s a typical days diet included two kinds of meats, eggs, cheese, butter, cream, bread, corn, several other vegetables, jellies, preserves, relishes, cake, pie, milk, coffee, and tea. Because cattle were more widely available, midwesterners and westerners also consumed more beef than did southerners.

Immigrant and Ethnic Foods. Central and eastern Europeans brought with them foods that became widely popular in the United States: Polish kielbasa (sausage); Hungarian gulyas (goulash); Italian pasta with tomato-based sauces, including spaghetti and lasagna; and Greek moussaka, pastitsio, and other lamb dishes. Greek and Italian immigrants were especially influential on American food tastes because of their tendency to enter the restaurant business. A distinctive Greek American contribution was Cincinnati five-way chili, made from


A Connecticut Family in the Textile Industry

Nine family members: husband, age 56, is a cloth inspector; wife, age 52, works at home; children male 21, male 18, male 17, female 14, female 12 three work, two are at school; two are boarders.

Annual family income: 
Husbands salary:188.00
Childrens wages:710.00
Boarders rent:40,00
Annual expenses: 
Annual food expenditures 
Hog products99.25
Other meat3.30

$ 482.31 The family of nine lives in a rented house with six rooms heated with wood. The house has one carpet. The light for the house is provided with oil lamps. The family uses twenty-four gallons of oil [ a year, costing $3.60. The husband spent $13.25 on clothing; the wife spent $7.00, and the children spent $130.00. The family spent $10.25 on furniture and paid $1.38 in taxes. The family paid no life insurance or labor dues. They contributed $30.00 to the church and $2.50 to charity. They spent $4.00 on vacations, $4.00 on alcohol, and $10.40 on tobacco. At the end of the year the family had a surplus of $88.85.

A Georgia Family in the Textile Industry

Four family members: husband, age 54, is a card rinder; wife, age 25, works at home; one child female, age 4; one boarder.

Annual family income: 
Husbands income:312.00
Boarders rent:10.00
The family does not own its home. 
Annual expenses 
Annual food expenditures 
Hog products17.00
Other meat13.00

$119.70 This family rents a two-room apartment. Heat is provided with wood. The home is lighted by oil, of which the family uses thirteen gallons at $1.95 annually. The home is comfortably furnished, and the family owns a sewing machine. The husband spent $20.00 on clothing; the wife, $20.00 and the childs clothing cost $6.00. The family spent $46.90 for furniture. The family gave $2.60 to the Woodsmen of the World, $3.00 to the church, and $.50 to other charities. They spent $3.25 on alcohol, $3.00 on tobacco, and $65 on medical expenses. Their vacations cost $3,25.

Source: Bulletin of the Department of Labor (1890).

ground beef and a complex combination of flavorings and served over pasta with grated cheese, kidney beans, and onions. Jewish immigrants were well represented in the delicatessen business, which introduced foods from Germany, Romania, Hungary, and various Slavic countries, including pastrami, corned beef, latkes (potato pancakes), and borscht (beet soup). Spanish-speaking immigrants introduced tortillas, salsa, chilis, and posole. Mexican and Anglo food sensibilities eventually blended in such American foods as barbecue and various Tex-Mex dishes.

Standardization. During the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s the expansion of railroad networks enabled foods to be transported farther and faster. The refrigerated railroad car allowed foods grown only in one part of the country to be shipped safely and cheaply to shoppers all over the nation. Californians began shipping fresh fruits to the East Coast in 1869, but the practice of shipping fruits and vegetables by rail did not become widespread for another decade. Improvements in refrigeration also allowed meats to be shipped long distances without the threat of spoiling. Businessmen such as Gustavus Franklin Swift and Philip Danforth Armour made fortunes in the burgeoning meatpacking industry centered in Chicago. Swift and Armour worked separately on perfecting the refrigerated train car in the early 1880s, and each supplied the railroad lines with his own cars. Swifts system of transporting beef, which he began to develop in 1879, became a model for the industry. Cattle were slaughtered in Chicago, and large slabs of meat were loaded on overhead hanging racks in refrigerated train cars. To avoid spoilage when refrigerated cars arrived at their destinations, the cars were brought to a stop directly opposite the doors of cold-storage buildings. The overhead racks in the cars were connected to those in the buildings, and the meat was quickly moved inside. From there butchers cut and packaged the meat before it was transported to stores.

Competition. Almost immediately after they had invested enormous amounts of money in refrigerator cars, Swift and Armour faced competition from a rapidly growing canned-meat industry. Canned meat, from which gristle and bones had been removed, weighed only one-third as much as regular meat. As canned meat became more popular, Swift and Armour found that their meat-shipping revenues were slipping, and they were forced to find some way to fill their expensive railroad cars. Armour sent his agents to the South to encourage farmers there to raise large quantities of perishable fruits and berries that would require refrigerated shipping to northern cities. Soon Armour was making a fortune transporting fresh fruits from Florida and California across the country, helping to further diversify the American diet. In 1880 vegetables for all but the wealthiest Americans tended to mean potatoes and cabbage. By 1910, thanks in part to advertising by the big companies that processed and shipped fruits and vegetables, Americans were eating a much wider variety of these foods.

Canning. In the 1870s city dwellers preserved their own summer perishables for winter use. The housewife would buy local strawberries or peaches in season and use them to make preserves and jams. Apples, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables of local origin were stored in the family cellar. By the 1880s and 1890s, however, the central heating installed in more and more houses had made some cellars too warm for winter storage. Many

city dwellers, particularly immigrants and working-class, families, lived in apartments and had no cellars in which to store food. Families without cold-storage facilities had to buy whatever perishables were available daily and to rely on commercially canned foods. Improvements in technology during the 1860s and 1870s helped the canning industry to meet growing demands. While the industry produced only five million cans of food in 1860, it put up thirty million by 1870, and over the next decade the value of its output increased by 200 percent. Farmers in Florida and California started to grow new strains of fruits, including the navel orange from Brazil and the Valencia orange from Europe, precisely for canning. A half-dozen new kinds of potatoes, as well as new varieties of tomatoes that were better suited for canning, were cultivated by farmers eager to sell their crops to canning factories.

Scientific Housekeeping. Another contribution to food standardization came from the scientific-housekeeping movement popular among middle-class women. Becoming known as home economics in 1899, scientific housekeeping sought to bring modern science into the home by introducing improved cleaning and sanitation methods and nutritious recipes that used standardized measurements. Women involved in the movement became instructors at colleges and universities that admitted women and in cooking schools such as the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 by members of the movement. The most famous graduate of this school was Fannie Farmer, whose The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896) became a best-seller. Farmer approached food preparation with practicality, enthusiasm, and an emphasis on nutrition. She was the first cookbook author to use the spoon-and-cup measurements that had recently become available. The overall effect of the movement of which Farmer was a member was the promotion of a nationally standardized cuisine prepared from identical recipes with identical equipment.


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

Richard Osborn Cummings, The American and His Food: A History of American Eating Habits in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941);

Richard J. Hooker, Food and Drink in the United States: A History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981);

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