Food and Social Diversity

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Food and Social Diversity


Diet . Americans of the revolutionary era relied heavily on salted meat, root vegetables, milk, and porridge. The frontier experience, a foundation of colonial society, had eliminated all but the hardiest of vegetables from the diet. Beans, turnips, potatoes, and sweet potatoes were easy to grow and could be stored for long periods of time. Regional variations in diet among the colonies were significant, determined by what foods were at hand and on the origins of the people who settled there.

The Breadbasket . New York, New Jersey, and particularly Pennsylvania made up the breadbasket of the British colonies; the farmers of eastern Pennsylvania produced most of the wheat consumed in Canada and the West Indies. Consequently the diet in this region was more varied than in other colonies. The Germans and the Dutch introduced many foods to the bland English diet, including cheeses, wheat bread, salads, apples, and vegetables. Cabbage, eaten as a salad or as sauerkraut, was a popular vegetable. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician, believed that German immigrants had introduced green vegetables to that city, and he applauded this addition to the diet of city dwellers. Other observers claimed that the Hessian troops, whom the British hired to fight in the colonies, introduced kohlrabi, broccoli, and black radishes during the Revolution.

The Backcountry . The Scots-Irish of the Pennsylvania and Southern backcountry depended on hunting, fishing, and wild fruits and greens. Their diet included bear, venison, rabbit, squirrel, woodchuck, and turkey. This group rarely stayed in one place long enough to establish regular crops, but even a small patch of cleared land yielded sweet potatoes and turnips. Cows were prized on the frontier since their milk could be made into corn and rye mush. Without milk the frontiersmen made their mush from molasses, honey, or meat gravy. Life on the frontier often meant adopting Indian foodways; frontiersmen hunted and prepared their food using techniques learned from Native Americans. They grew corn, beans, and squash in the same field in imitation of the natives.

New England . In New England the easily grown pumpkin was eaten roasted, boiled, and mashed and was made into bread, cakes, and pies. Traditional English fare, milk porridge and white bread formed a dietary staple. Pigs could be raised nearly anywhere and left to forage in woodlands or even among the refuse in city streets. City authorities paid a functionary known as a hogreeve, or herder, to keep these surly and often dangerous foraging swine under control. The abundance of pigs meant that pork was ever present in the American diet, usually dried and preserved in salt. A British officer observed that fresh meat was eaten only when a fox got hold of a chicken and could be frightened into surrendering it.


A menu from the College of Rhode Island, now Brown University, gives a glimpse of the bland fare that seems to have been the lot of college students in the 1780s. At the end of the Revolutionary War the teenage, male, mostly ministerial students of the college took their dinnersthat is, their midday mealin a common dining hall, as given in a typical weekly menu:

Two meals of salt beef and pork, with, peas, beans, greens, roots, etc., and puddings. For drink, good small beer and cider.

Two meals of fresh meat, roasted, baked, broiled, or fried, with proper sauce or vegetables.

One meal of soup and fragments.

One meal of boiled fresh meat with proper sauce and broth.

One meal of salt or fresh fish, with brown bread.

Suppers were of hasty pudding, rice, corn mush, white bread, or milk porridge with tea, coffee, or chocolate. Meals, especially dinner, would vary during the week by the addition of puddings, apple pies, dumplings, or cheese as often as maybe convenient and suitable.

Breakfasts were also probably quite plain, as at-tested to by John Adams; he said that when he attended Harvard College, he received bread, biscuit, and milk in the morning.

The ageless complaints of students about dining-hall fare resonate in the outcries of classmates of Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary. In 1760 students demanded both salt and fresh meat at dinner and puddings and pies on Sunday and two times a week.

Sources: Richard J. Hooker, Food and Drink in America: A History (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981);

Robert B. St. George, ed., Material Life in America, 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

Seafood . Most residents of the thirteen colonies lived within miles of the ocean or tidal rivers; thus seafood was an inevitable part of their diet. Shellfish were plentiful and cheap and formed the mainstay of the diet of the poor. Lobsters were not considered a delicacy and were common fare for humble New Englanders. In the streets of New York oyster venders pushed barrows laden with


Fragmentary existing records give us a glimpse of the diets of soldiers, prisoners, and slaves, who ate well or badly, depending on availability of food and the relative largesse or stinginess of those who provided their daily fare. Modern nutritionists consider an adequate daily diet for a man of" average physical activity to be between 3,000 and 3,200 calories. Men who perform heavy labor require about 4,550 calories. Men of the revolutionary era may have needed fewer calories because of their slightly smaller stature. However, their work may have been a good deal more strenuous without modern machinery. Total calories, also, do not reflect good nutrition, something that is apparently lacking from most of the diets below.

Basic Weekly Diets of Selected Groups, 1755-1790

(all amounts in founds or gallons unless other-wise specified)

Year and PopulationCals per dayBreadFlourOatmealPeasRiceCorntnealFishBeefPorkCheeseButterBeerMolasses
Sources; Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C,: Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Cencus, 1975);
Billy G. Smith, The Material Lives of Laboring Philadelphians, 17501800, in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, edited by Robert B. St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).
About 1790, staves on George Washingtons plantation2,800     11.32.4      
1780, French prisoners returned I o France and English repatriates3,1007      7   31/2 
1780, Continental Army Ration2,600-40007 or7   13/4 7 or61/2    
1776, Tory Prisoners in Maryland3,600-42007 or7 3 pts. 1 qt. 7 or51/4   7 gills
1775, Continental Army Ration3,000-5,4007 or7 3 pts. 1 pi.7 or7 or51/4  13/4 or 2/3 
About 1770, Convicts sent to Va., Md., and the Carolines from England2,00042/3 12/31   2/31/22/3  11/4
1761, British Army in Canada3,300-3,800 7 3 pts.1/2  7 or4 3/8  
1757, Virginia Militia in the field2,900 7    7 or7 or7    
1755, Acadians sent to Maryland1,400 5      1    

shellfish and cried their wares as they went; these were usually poor women looking to make a few pence. A French refugee, Moreau de Saint Mery, wrote Americans have almost a passion for oysters, which they eat at all hours, even in the streets.

Southern Plenty and Paucity. Milk, particularly served in corn or wheat porridge, was a staple in New England and the Middle colonies, but in the warmer Southern colonies it was hard to keep milk fresh and was thus rare. An itinerant minister, Charles Woodmason visited the South Carolina backcountry in 1767 and found no Eggs, Butter, Flour, Milk, or anything but fat rusty Bacon, and fir Water, with Indian Corn Bread. In other locales he found bacon and eggs, but only rarely milk or fresh meat. A poor woman in South Carolina described her diet as consisting mainly of corn mush, salt beef, and water. But with the proper means even the Southern diet could encompass a range of delicacies. Harriot Horry, daughter of a South Carolina planter, compiled a cookbook in 1770 that included beef, veal, and seafood dishes along with Shrewsbury cakes and cheesecakes, marmalades, gingerbread, almond cream, and strawberry jellies.

Food Shortages. British and American soldiers and Patriot and Loyalist partisans destroyed the farms, crops, and livestock of their enemies during the Revolutionary War. Food shortages became common in both the armies and the cities of the thirteen colonies. The Continental Army lacked bread and survived on a half ration of rice in 1779. During 1780 and 1781 the army at times lacked both meat and flour; at one point each man subsisted on four ears of corn per day. With the severe devaluation of Continental paper money, food prices rose; hoarding and profiteering were common in the cities. Potatoes became a staple food in the North for both armies and civilians. John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that if necessary they would subsist on potatoes rather than submit to the British. At the time, however, the Adamses were living comfortably, lacking only coffee, sugar, and pepper.

Price Controls. In Philadelphia the radicals who had been the mainstay of the revolutionary movement issued loud complaints against speculators in food and other necessities. In 1779, as paper currency became nearly worthless and as food prices soared, artisans on the Committee of Observation and Inspection exerted informal but firm control over the prices of essential commodities. Daniel Roberdeau, committee chairman and militia general, drew up a list of prices for food and threatened to punish merchants who did not hold to it. In other cities and towns groups of citizens seized food from merchants they thought were squeezing excessive profits from a desperate situation. Merchants, local leaders, and the common people had traditionally agreed on a notion of a just price for basic foodstuffs. Farmers and laboring people at times exerted pressure to see that these standards were observed.

Free Trade. Revolutionary-era merchants were engaged in a thriving world trade; notions of free competition prevailed, and following the writings of the economist Adam Smith, many merchants believed that over time the invisible hand of the market would intervene to regulate prices and supplies. However, theoretical nostrums did little to alleviate the real pain caused to the people when merchants withdrew scarce food from the market in hopes of obtaining a better price at a later date. The Committee of Observation and Inspection and angry citizens went beyond the law, confronting merchants and forcing the price of food into line. After the war such extreme measures were ruled illegal, and the traditional notions of price controls were swept away in favor of the emerging free market. As the war moved southward around 1780, most of the North began to return to its normal condition of food surpluses.


Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (Oxford &, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);

Richard J. Hooker, Food and Drink in America: A History (Indianapolis & New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1981);

Reay Tannahill, Food in History (New York: Stein & Day, 1973).