Old Ways In A New World
Like people, nations are what they eat. But even before America became an independent nation, its colonial inhabitants produced and consumed their daily fare in ways that gradually began to shape a distinctive American identity. From the Puritans' "pease porridge" (forerunner of the New England baked beans) to the Carolina lowlanders' spicy hoppin' John, the dietary staples of British colonials up and down the eastern seaboard spoke volumes about where they came from and what they were trying to achieve.
The early British colonists were a varied lot. In his book Albion ' s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer identifies four different waves of English-speaking immigrants: the Puritans of eastern England who started settling in and around Massachusetts in 1629; the Royalist elite and indentured servants from southern England who put down roots in Virginia starting around 1642; Quakers and others from England's North Midlands and Wales who began moving into the Delaware Valley around 1675; and a host of borderland folk from northern England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland who plunked themselves down in Appalachian backcountry mostly after 1718.
While they all ate differently, they all tried, to varying degrees, to maintain old-world ways. The austere Puritans largely spurned the bounteous fish and fowl of their new setting for the baked peas (renamed beans in the 18th century) and relentlessly boiled dinners of old East Anglia. Among backcountry people, barley-based Scotch yielded to corn- or rye-made bourbon as the standard mealtime accompaniment, a quart per person per meal being considered a temperate quantity. Otherwise, as one visiting Anglican missionary observed of a community of Ulster transplants, they lived "wholly on butter, milk, clabber [curdled sour milk], and what in England is given to hogs." That unhappy man would have been far more comfortable at a Virginia planter's table, with its roast beef, assorted game meats, and the English favorites--asparagus and strawberries. In the Delaware Valley, Quaker simplicity, particularly a fondness for boiled dumplings and puddings, extended, Fischer explains, to a form of food preservation by dehydration that produced, for one, Philadelphia cream cheese.
Self-sufficient. But the settlers' objectives--and their responses to the new environments--also contributed to different regional eating styles, particularly in the early colonial era, argues James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University-San Marcos, in his book A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America . The Puritans, for example, never sought to cultivate a single, cash-earning crop because they came to America on a spiritual mission rather than an economic one. They produced a varied and abundant food supply that assured a virtuous self-sufficiency. Raising English rye and oats, they also imported English meadow grasses to raise cattle for meat and dairy products. If their food was as boringly prepared as their East Anglian cousins' was, it also contained many of the same elements.
Not so with colonials farther south, particularly those who came to places like coastal Carolina by way of Barbados and other Caribbean islands. Eager for a crop like sugarcane that had made them so much money on the islands (and eventually discovering rice through their slaves), they abandoned many of their old, British eating habits and acquired new foods and new dishes from their African slaves or Native Americans, including sweet potatoes, corn-based grits, gumbos, and jambalaya-like combinations of pork, beans, and rice. Settlers arriving in the Chesapeake region also relied on Native American foods until they began to prosper from tobacco, their cash crop, and were able to buy foodstuffs that gave their tables a far more English look.