A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America
James E. McWilliams
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Sugar, pork, beer, corn, cider, scrapple, and hoppin' John all became staples in the diet of colonial America. The ways Americans cultivated and prepared food and the values they attributed to it played an important role in shaping the identity of the newborn nation. In A Revolution in Eating, James E. McWilliams presents a colorful and spirited tour of culinary attitudes, tastes, and techniques throughout colonial America.
Confronted by strange new animals, plants, and landscapes, settlers in the colonies and West Indies found new ways to produce food. Integrating their British and European tastes with the demands and bounty of the rugged American environment, early Americans developed a range of regional cuisines. From the kitchen tables of typical Puritan families to Iroquois longhouses in the backcountry and slave kitchens on southern plantations, McWilliams portrays the grand variety and inventiveness that characterized colonial cuisine. As colonial America grew, so did its palate, as interactions among European settlers, Native Americans, and African slaves created new dishes and attitudes about food. McWilliams considers how Indian corn, once thought by the colonists as "fit for swine," became a fixture in the colonial diet. He also examines the ways in which African slaves influenced West Indian and American southern cuisine.
While a mania for all things British was a unifying feature of eighteenth-century cuisine, the colonies discovered a national beverage in domestically brewed beer, which came to symbolize solidarity and loyalty to the patriotic cause in the Revolutionary era. The beer and alcohol industry also instigated unprecedented trade among the colonies and further integrated colonial habits and tastes. Victory in the American Revolution initiated a "culinary declaration of independence," prompting the antimonarchical habits of simplicity, frugality, and frontier ruggedness to define American cuisine. McWilliams demonstrates that this was a shift not so much in new ingredients or cooking methods, as in the way Americans imbued food and cuisine with values that continue to shape American attitudes to this day.
acceptance out on the British Empire’s remote but increasingly commodified frontier. And, indeed, these assessments of material accumulation have a clear ring of truth. If, as one historian of consumer culture posits, “material goods themselves contain implicit meanings and are therefore indicative of attitudes,”33 then the consumer revolution that swept across the North American colonies in the 1740s and 1750s allowed colonists burdened by the stereotype of provinciality to express their
increasingly itinerant population a warm and welcome place of comfort, transformed the consumption of food and drink from a private to a public activity, and provided the essential context for food and drink to mix with (increasingly heated) political discussion. Taverns were unusually democratic in the clientele that they served. Men, women, servants, and sometimes even free blacks frequented the local tavern with regularity, and taverns were hardly limited to the big cities, dotting the rural
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corn’s benefits were hardly newsworthy to his audience. Englishmen had been feeding corn to their livestock for over a century after maize had come to Europe from the New World, and the practice was, by the time of Winthrop’s visit, completely accepted by the average husbandman. Winthrop, however, had a different case to make. The earnest colonist rose before this august body and argued that Indian corn was not only, in the words of a leading English herbalist, food fit “for swine,” but food
slave diet. Whites generally ate what they wanted and what they could afford, while slaves choked down the leftovers. On many occasions, though, the meager space allotted to slaves allowed them some flexibility to shape their diet around inherited African traditions. A smattering of evidence makes the case that African American and African slaves took advantage of this window of opportunity to develop culinary habits distinct from the dominant white cultural traditions. The Chesapeake style of