Teaching Essay: Food in the First Half of the American History Survey

Food in the First Half of the American History Survey” is the first in a series of commissioned articles for the Book Channel that aim to help teachers and professors incorporate the latest research into their curriculum. Helen Zoe Veit is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University and specializes in nineteenth and twentieth century American history. Her first book Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century was a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Award in Reference and Scholarship. More on Dr. Veit’s project on the intersection of food and American history can be found at her website.

How do you start to incorporate food in the first half of the American history survey? You don’t have to go far. When you start looking for food, you’ll find it everywhere, even in the most highly trafficked topics of a traditional American textbook. Native American farming and hunting. Famine and cannibalism at Jamestown. The Columbian Exchange. Agriculture. Empire. Slavery. Trade. Industrialization. Westward expansion. The Civil War. Sharecropping. Much of the recent scholarship on food picks up just where the first half of the American survey usually ends, in the late nineteenth century, but there are important exceptions. A small and growing body of excellent work on earlier American history provides a foundation for expanding lectures, adding classroom activities, and, not incidentally, sparking student interest by talking more about food.

Food was an important part of the exploration and empire-building that usually occupies early lectures in the survey. Building on Sidney Mintz’s classic commodity study, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008) follows two crucial commodities in the Spanish world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the process, Norton complicates and enlarges ideas about the Columbian Exchange, revealing a process that looks less like hemispheric interchange and more like global integration, fully implicating North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Meanwhile, works of even more wide-ranging global history like Rachel Lauden’s 2013 Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History and Kenneth Kiple’s 2007 A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization provide insight into how global transformations in agriculture, trade, slavery, and religion shaped early American food culture.

People have always struggled to define American cuisine because it has always been strikingly diverse, with European, African, and Native American ingredients and cooking methods all playing key roles. Indeed, to the extent early American cuisine existed at all, hybridity was one of its most consistently recognized features. Marcie Cohen Ferris’s 2014 The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region starts with an exploration of how in the American South, in particular, West African ingredients such as rice, okra, and black-eyed peas joined indigenous American ingredients such as corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, as well as European wheat, meat, and dairy products, and Asian spices and teas. Judith Carney’s 2009 In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World and Jessica Harris’s 2011 High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America both deepen our understanding of how African ingredients, cultivation techniques, and cooking styles shaped American food in general and African American food in particular.

Some foods became special markers of American cuisine early on, especially native foods like corn, pumpkin, turkey, and cranberries. But while ingredient availability partly explains the canonization of particular foods in any cuisine, material constraints never tell the whole story. Why, for instance, didn’t bison or whale or other foods enjoyed by some native North Americans ever become part of broader American cuisine?[1] Why, during and after the Revolution, did white Americans show such tenacious partiality for English cooking styles and dishes, including a reliance on boiling and baking and a preference for wheat bread, dairy products, puddings, large cuts of meat, beer, and cider? James McWilliams’s 2005 A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America examines food in British America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, exploring the complicated emergence of regional cuisines and the importance of some foods, especially tea and sugar, to revolutionary politics. His introduction, which features a wonderfully vivid description of a messy family meal in seventeenth-century Maryland, is a student favorite.

Besides emphasizing the hybridity of American food, observers also consistently noted its abundance (and, often, Americans’ correspondingly huge appetites). An outstanding short overview of food in early American history is Joyce E. Chaplin’s essay, “Food and the Material Origins of Early America” in Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala (2014). Chaplin’s examination of the ways in which American abundance was naturalized is particularly striking. Building on sources like William Cronon’s 1983 Changes in the Land: Indians Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, she points out that the overriding preconditions for the American abundance so touted by white settlers were chattel slavery and the forced removal of Indians from productive land.

Moreover, even as some colonists and visitors emphasized America’s “natural” abundance, food was hardly plentiful for everyone. Poor Americans struggled to secure adequate calories, and for many people industrialization only worsened income disparities. Height records suggest that enslaved children were dramatically stunted because of widespread underfeeding during childhood growth spurts; meanwhile, in large part because enslaved women could rarely nurse their babies for long, infant mortality under slavery approached a staggering 50 percent. Food was also central to the South’s defeat in the Civil War. Joan E. Cashin’s fascinating essay, “Hungry People in the Wartime South: Civilians, Armies, and the Food Supply” in the 2011 volume Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, edited by Stephen Berry and Amy Taylor, works well for teaching. I have also assigned excerpts from planter periodicals published from 1861 through 1865 from a primary source reader I edited, Food in the Civil War Era: The South (2015), which chart declining Southern fortunes during the war. 

Indeed, food lends itself to teaching with primary sources. Besides primary source readers, there are now an impressive number of historical American cookbooks available in digital form. One of the richest sites is Michigan State University’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project, which includes dozens of rare books, such as the earliest American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery, as well as contextualizing essays. Nineteenth-century American cookbooks are also increasingly available in general digital collections such as HathiTrust. One of the advantages of using primary culinary sources is the element of surprise; students can be shocked and disgusted by hearing the details of what Americans used to eat. Cooking instructions that assumed that vegetables had to be boiled for hours to be healthful or enthusiastic descriptions of feet, lungs, brains, and other offal can jolt students out of easy assumptions that historical Americans were just like them, with different clothes. Try showing students suggested menus from nineteenth-century cookbooks: why would people have eaten things like sweetbreads and mushrooms and mutton chops for breakfast? It’s only a short jump to get students asking: well, why not? What cultural and technological forces helped radically contract our definitions of acceptable breakfast foods? Food can disorient students and shake them out of a belief that their own tastes and habits are the right and natural way to do things.

Nineteenth-century cookbooks can also open up windows onto gender and class for students who too often blithely assume that before the late twentieth century all women stayed home cooking and cleaning all day. Of course many women did spend much of their lives procuring food, processing it, and cooking it (in addition to related tasks like chopping wood, hauling water, and managing fires). But hardly all women cooked. Some were too busy working in fields or factories or in other people’s homes. And some middle-class and wealthy women employed others to cook for them. Indeed, a disproportionate number of cookbooks published in the nineteenth century were aimed at elite women who played mainly managerial roles in their kitchens, rather than doing the cooking themselves. Food and drink were also a key arena in which women participated in consumer culture, as examined in Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor’s The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (2009), and nineteenth-century cookbooks often included detailed instructions on buying foods as well as cooking them.

One more thing: you can feed your students. It might sound gimmicky or expensive or troublesome (and it can be all of these), but eating captures students’ attention and gets them talking like almost nothing else. Sometimes I’ve brought food like homemade hardtack into classes myself, and I’ve sometimes given students the option of recreating dishes themselves using historical recipes. In “Chocolate in the Classroom,” a blog post on The Recipes Project website, the historian of England Amanda E. Herbert describes using American Heritage drinking chocolate mix in class. (American Heritage is a line of historical chocolate products created by the MARS company.) She had her students, for whom hot chocolate had always been synonymous with creamy sweetness, record tasting notes on the thick, unsweetened beverage that resulted, and they used their own disconcertion as the starting point for a discussion about the ways particular historical circumstances affect taste preferences. Of course, cooking and eating actual food when talking about historical food is deeply problematic. How do we start to approximate historical recipes when most of them don’t specify ingredient quantities, temperatures, or cooking times? How do we deal with the fact that even seemingly straightforward ingredients—a tomato, an egg, a cup of milk, flour—might taste utterly different today because of refrigeration, breeding, pasteurization, or industrial milling? How can we ever know if we got it right when trying to reproduce historical recipes? These are big problems, but that’s part of the point. Food is a visceral way to introduce students to the unresolvable uncertainties that go into interpreting all primary sources, and the questions food raises can provide a jumping-off point for talking about the limits of our knowledge about the past in every realm.


[1] Nancy Shoemaker explores the riddle of whale aversion in “Whale Meat in American History,” Environmental History 10 (April 2005): 269-294.

Recommended Readings

Cashin, Joan E. “Hungry People in the Wartime South: Civilians, Armies, and the Food Supply” in Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges, edited by Stephen Berry and Amy Taylor Athens: University of Georgia, 2011.

Carney, Judith. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of California Press, 2009.

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Food and the Material Origins of Early America” in Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, edited by Paul Freedman, Joyce E. Chaplin, and Ken Albala. Berkely: University of California, 2014.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill & Wang, 1983.

Ferris, Marcie Cohen. The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2014.

Harris, Jessica. High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Hartigan-O'Connor, Ellen. The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Kiple, Kenneth. A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. New York: Cambridge 2007.

Lauden, Rachel. Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. Berkely: University of California, 2013.

McWilliams, James. A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Michigan State University Feeding AmericaThe Historic American Cookbook Project

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1985.

Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca: Cornell, 2008.

Veit, Helen. Food in the Civil War Era: The South. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2015.