Cooking Up America

Cooking Up America

The defining feature of food in the early republic became the elevation of the simple American over the fancy European.

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The source: “Cuisine and National Identity in the Early Republic” by James E. McWilliams, in Historically Speaking, May–June, 2006.

The first consumer revolution in America probably occurred around 1730, when the settlers began to make real money and the British began to ship affordable luxuries to the colonies. High on the colonists’ shopping lists were stoves, cooking tools, tables, chairs, and English cookbooks. ­State-­of-­the-­art imported kitchen products helped American cooks balance the culinary refinement they sought with the rustic provisions available in the New ­World.

Regional differences already had appeared. New England tilted toward Old Country tastes, using its farms to grow vegetables and fruit, to keep livestock for beef and dairy, and to cultivate as much English wheat, rye, and oats as the size of their family-based work force would ­allow.

The Deep South, by contrast, nearly abandoned traditional British fare, according to James E. McWilliams, an assistant professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos. Growing rice with a labor force of slaves, southerners were much more likely to eat rice or peanuts along with local game and Native American and ­African-­American crops such as Indian and Guinea ­corn.

A growing American hunger for rum and molasses from Barbados in the early 18th century spurred culinary cross-fertilization among the colonies. Ships that started out trading only rum and molasses began to carry foods. Okra appeared in Rhode Island, New England cod went to the middle colonies, Virginia ham was available in South ­Carolina.

As the Revolution approached, the culinary repertoire of the colonial cook was abruptly truncated not only by embargoes but by a sense that proper American food should be different from that of Europe, frugal and unpretentious rather than ­refined.

Patrick Henry once condemned Thomas Jefferson for his love of fine French food instead of “native victuals.” Increasingly, the elevation of the simple American over the fancy European became a defining American feature in food as well as in manners, dress, and leisure pur­suits. In the election campaign of 1840, William Henry Harrison delivered the coup de grâce to his opponent, President Martin Van Buren, by charging that Van Buren’s tastes ran not to real American food, but to soup à la reine and pâté de foie ­gras.

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