Food in America

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Food in America


Eating Habits. American eating habits, which were quite different than those of Europe, captured the attention of European visitors to the United States during the early years of the republic. Most visitors made note of the eating practices they observed in their journals, and some visitors, by publishing their observations, presented them to a wider audience. They were interested not only in the type and quantity of the food, but also in the way it was prepared, served, and eaten.

Ashe. One description of American dining habits during this period comes from Englishman Thomas Ashe, who in 1806, in a story of a fictitious journey to America, wrote about dinner in a Kentucky cabin.


Sir Augustus John Foster, a traveling English nobleman, reported on a visit to the home of President Thomas Jefferson at Ponticello:

At Monticello I was present at some of the national sports and games, of which there are more in Virginia than in any other state I have visited. Horse racing is carried very far and gives rise to a great deal of gambling. Cock-fighting is on the decline, but still exists here and there. Quoits and nine-pins are much in fashion. And as to the festivities they are, especially the barbecues, most numerously attended on the Atlantic side of the Blue Ridge. A barbecue was originally a meeting in the woods to partake of a pig roasted whole. A pit was dug in the ground, firs placed in it, and a large pig supported on four stakes was put over the fire. There is always a dance afterwards, and I was told that at some places these meetings are exceedingly numerous, even the better sort of people attending them. Barbecues are now oftener held at a tavern and are very frequent in the summer. People think nothing of going ten or twelve miles to one.

Source: Augustus John Foster, Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States of America Collected in the Years 1805-6-7 and 11-12, edited by Richard Beale Davis (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1954).

The dinner consisted of a large piece of salt bacon, a dish of hominy, and a tureen of squirrel broth. I dined entirely on the last dish, which I found incomparably good, and the meat equal to the most delicate chicken. The Kentuckian ate nothing but bacon, which indeed is the favorite diet of all the inhabitants of the State, and drank nothing but whiskey, which soon made him more than two-thirds drunk. In this last practice he is also supported by the public habit. In a country then, where bacon and spirits form the favorite summer repast, it cannot

not be just to attribute entirely the causes of infirmity to the climate. No people on earth live with less regard to regimen. They eat salt meat three times a day, seldom or never have any vegetables, and drink ardent spirits from morning till night. They have not only an aversion to fresh meat, but a vulgar prejudice that it is unwholesome. The truth is, their stomachs are depraved by burning liquors, and they have no appetite for anything but what is high-flavored and strongly impregnated by salt.

Vol-ney. Ashe was correct in saying that salted meat was a staple of the diet in Kentucky, but he clearly did not understand why. In the country fresh meat, other than game or poultry, was not always available. Only the wealthy could afford fresh meat regularly. However, it was possible for most people to raise hogs because they were inexpensive, and the most effective way to preserve the meat after slaughter was by salting. Also, contrary to what Ashe said, vegetables were also a part of the diet, though corn was the most commonly used vegetable. A more reliable account of American eating habits was provided by Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte de Vol-ney:

I will venture to say that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth, and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of the Americans. In the morning at breakfast they deluge their stomachs with a quart of hot water, impregnated with tea, or so slightly with coffee that it is mere colored water; and they swallow, almost without chewing, hot bread, half baked, toast soaked in butter, cheese of the fattest kind, slices of salt or hung beef, ham, etc., all which are nearly insoluble. At dinner they have boiled pastes under the name of puddings, and the fattest are esteemed the most delicious; all their sauces, even for roast beef, are melted butter; their turnips and potatoes swim in hogs lard, butter, or fat; under the name of pie or pumpkin, their pastry is nothing but a greasy paste, never sufficiently baked. To digest these viscous substances they take tea almost instantly after dinner, making it so strong that it is absolutely bitter to the taste, in which state it affects the nerves so powerfully that even the English find it brings on a more obstinate restlessness than coffee. Supper again introduces salt meats or oysters. As Chastellux says, the whole day passes in heaping indigestions on one another; and to give tone to the poor, relaxed, and wearied stomach, they drink Madeira, rum, French brandy, gin, or malt spirits, which complete the ruin of the nervous system.


Henry Adams, History of the United States during the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, volume 1 (Cambridge, Mass.: Privately printed, 1884); Thomas Ashe, Travels in America, 1806 (London: R. Phillips, 1808).