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What Did the Founding Fathers Eat?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
The Fourth of July is a time for flags, fireworks, food and fun!  It’s also a time to remember that safe and convenient food has not always been readily available in our country.  Today, the average person spends about 50 minutes in the kitchen each day preparing meals—about five minutes for breakfast, 15 minutes for lunch and up to 30 minutes for dinner. In colonial America, cooks would slave away over the stove for hours.  Talk about your American Revolution!
However, some of our modern dining habits actually do bear similarities to those of our colonial ancestors.  Beef, chicken, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and baked products would have been familiar foods in colonial times. Colonial cooks used some of the same cooking methods we still use today, like frying, baking, broiling and boiling.  And while the colonists enjoyed their coffee, tea, and hot chocolate like we do, they didn’t have a Starbucks in every neighborhood!
Not much else was the same.  While we may not know exactly what George Washington ate for dinner on July Fourth, we do know several things about the preparation of foods in 1776.  Here are a few highlights:
  • Colonists had to make do with whatever food was in season. They prepared and ate it that day.  Refrigeration didn’t exist, and canned foods wouldn’t be invented until ten years after General Washington’s death.
  • If the colonists wanted a turkey for dinner, they would kill it early in the morning, cook it over an open fire and would eat it that day.  Otherwise, it would spoil. 
  • The colonists didn’t worry at all about flies and bugs buzzing around their food.  If it was summer, there were bound to be flies--and there were no screens on the windows or doors to keep them out.  Our ancestors simply shooed the critters out before digging into their meal.
  • If the colonists wanted to cook or bake, their only choice for a heat source was a wood fire.  They didn’t have a digital thermostat to tell them when the oven reached 350 degrees! They judged the heat by the brightness and color of the flames. 
  • If a colonial family was lucky enough to own a cookbook, they had to decipher recipes that contained general measuring terms such as ''a teacup full of molasses,'' ''a great spoon-full of ginger,'' and ''a little milk.'' They then baked the resulting pudding ''three or four hours.''
  • The colonists used lots and lots of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to season food.  In fact, the greasier, sweeter, and spicier the food, the better the meal!
  • Raw fruits and vegetables were considered unappetizing, so they were boiled vigorously with lots of sugar added to make them tastier.
  • When the colonists served meat (which was often), they usually left the head and feet of the animal attached.  
The culinary scene has changed greatly since 1776! In fact, one of the leading causes of death for women back in colonial times was burning to death--their large skirts would catch on fire while cooking!  Realizing the labor and risks involved to feed a family back then makes me feel ashamed of all my complaints about preparing meals with my modern kitchen luxuries.  As we enjoy our Fourth of July celebration, let’s take a moment to remember that freedom isn’t free, and to give thanks for the blessing of liberty. 
What are you cooking for the Fourth of July?

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PATRICIAAK 9/23/2020
:) Report
KOALA_BEAR 6/28/2020
I'm all for eating dead animals - wild boar, squirrels, venison or fish, clams, crayfish - & seasonal produce which would have included peas or beans, onions, carrots & apple or berry pie. My mom had an early version of "The Old Settlement Cookbook" that had baking instructions for using a wood fed stove. As a young girl, YWCA camp taught me how to use reflective heat to bake biscuits. I think cooks back then taught one another & as now, you learn via trial & error.
Independence Day is easy grilled food like shish kebobs & baked potatoes or sausage & marinated veggies (we love eggplant, mushrooms & bell peppers) or steak & coleslaw. If we don't grill pineapple or peaches then it's frozen fruit bars or faux banana ice cream & a poke cake for dessert. Our fav is boxed cake made w/ natural applesauce instead of oil then filled w/ sugarfree cherry jello & topped w/ blueberries & strawberries. In my family we served watermelon but got to make allowances for my stepdaughter's birthday on July 4th. Her dad always said, everyone celebrates w/ her! Report
I've cooked many meals over a camp fire and I've found it fun. But I never wore a skirt, let alone a big skirt! Report
Having served briefly as a tour guide at a colonial mansion I know a little about these times. They only had sugar and cinnamon if they were wealthy. Spices were often used as currency. And the lady of the house had a key to spice cabinet that she kept on her at all times. Tea and Coffee were not abundant either. Report
I'm glad it's not the 1770's anymore. I would probably eat a lot of grilled meat and boiled fruits and veggies... I wouldn't be able to cook anything fancier, nor able to bake! On the menu this Independence Day was whatever meat the party I went to grilled, and the aformentioned fruits and veggies (raw, not boiled). Report
pretty much the same exact blog entry that was on SP radio with Lily and Karen :) Report
I was looking at an old family recipe book with my mom and the measurements were for things like "butter about the size of an egg". I like this historical perspective on things, makes me appreciate how far we have come as a society. Report
We had lobster rolls and corn on the cob.... yummy! Report
My daughter B-Day & went too my mother- inlaws. Traditional cookout hotdogs & hamburgers. Cake & ice cream. Report
While I admire the purpose of this entry, there are so many historical and gastronomical mistakes here. Game birds are hung up to a week, not eaten that'll day. Food doesn't spoil in a day. Sugar was terribly expensive, you were rich if you had lots.People weren't lucky to have a cookbook, but lucky to have a well trained cook, usually the mother, sometimes a servant, who would know the right temperature by how it felt to her. And, more..... Report
Thanks for the reminder of how blessed I am to live in this country, and enjoy our modern conveniences. Report
wow. great blog. Report
Thank you for reminding us all that our ancestors risked much and worked hard to establish this great country - for us to enjoy! As we celebrate this Fourth, we should all keep that in mind. Report
About 18th century cookbooks

I've seen one or two of them, one actually the hand-written original. The recipes are so short! Sometimes four or five to a page. Partly because the writing can be spidery and paper is expensive, but also because often there's no seperate list of ingredients and the instructions can be very short - you're lucky if they tell you to butter the pan before the "and put in your cake" (meaning the dough). After all, the books are supposed to be written for someone who knows how to cook. Report
When I don't want to cook anything because it's too hot, I'll remember the burning skirts of the colonial woment...yikes! We have it so much easier today.
Happy Independence Day! Report
We are not cooking a special meal on the 4th, but on the 8th of July, my husband's birthday, we are having a small family party and will BBQ hamburgers, hot dogs and have the usual salads, deviled eggs, fruit salad and an ice cream cake. And lots of ballons!! Report
I am a Canadian, and we have our Holiday, tomorrow. July 1st. We are 144 years old. I'll go to a holiday party, and really have no idea what will be served. I will eat healthy...maybe a sliver of dessert. Report
Now think about the food and lack of cooking present onboard a wooden sailing ship in the 1600-1800's. Pudding was a gelatanous meat substance! Being to sea for months meant no fruits or veggies, meat would go bad without being coated in salt (hence the pudding) or pickled, and hardtack (bread that was like biting a brick) was full of weevils (small worms). They were surrounded by undrinkable salt water so if the freshwater barrels were emptied and they risked it, they'd usually die. Many couldn't swim and risk of attack was high. As much as I love wooden sailing ships, I'd prefer to live in a colony where food was more plentiful and safer! Report
I doubt the colonists enjoyed much hot chocolate - in that era it was still uncommon and reserved for the wealthiest people. Same might be true of lots of spices (although perhaps by colonial times, spices were common and affordable, I'm not sure about that). Report
You are passing on a myth--THE leading cause of death for colonial women was disease, followed by childbirth. Women in the 1770s wore linen and wool--neither of these natural fibers catch fire easily! I work in a living history house--1770--and we wear natural fibers near the fire. People then KNEW how to behave around a fire--just as we know how to behave around a car. Cars kill far more people than fires and petticoats did in 1770. Report
I'm a humanitarian. Guess what I'll be eating...

Salting, smoking, drying, pickling, fermenting, they had many ways of preserving food. I'm actually surprised that dehydrating is so far off of people's radar as a preservation method these days. It's inexpensive, reliable, and fun. And you don't know what you're missing if you've never had an Amish style half moon pie. Report
I Might go to my moms for the fourth of July after i workout at the gym for a couple hours. I am greatful for the freedom we have, God Bless America. Report
We are very spoiled. I'm very greatful for what I have. God bless our United States of America. Freedom come with a price, Thanks to all that fight to keep us free. Report
Actually the colonists did preserve their meat. I had the pleasure of visiting Mt Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington, last November. They had a large smokehouse where they preserved meat and a salt house where they preserved fish from the Potomac River. It was a very interesting place to visit. One of the most interesting things I saw in the gardens was the crop rotation schedule. It was so detailed!! George Washington was always looking for ways to increase the productivity and fertility of the soil, even to constructing a dung repository. Early composting! LOL They say Mt Vernon was a model for progressive farming. If you've never been, I highly recommend it. It is a beautiful place and does make you appreciate our modern conveniences. And you can get in lots of fitness minutes walking the plantation!!! It's a "sparkling" way to spend a day. Report
Yes,cooking back in colonial times had to be difficult least!!I use a convection oven only and do fine with it.I can bake with it as long as the pan is round or a small square.This sunday I will cook the last corned beef and have my vegetarian neighbor over to share the vege's.We buy en masse as the sales unfold during the year.The freezer is starting to get low so will wait and buy when the sales are on.
SJKRach,yes you said it perfectly!!!!My husband is retired military and I will give him extra kisses today and again on the fourth!!! Report
Their cookbook instructions sound like my own recipes -- I don't usually measure, just eyeball it instead.

Dragonfly02 -- not necessarily. I grew up in a rural farm area as well, we grew vegetables but my neighbors raised cows, chickens, and pigs for slaughter. It was very common, something I was used to, to know exactly which cow you were munching down on and not think twice about it. But even despite that I became a vegetarian at the age of 12 [vegan when I was 22]. Even though killing animals for food was the norm in my town, I knew early on that I wasn't comfortable with it. My brother also became a vegetarian when he reached that age, and his best friend [whose family owns a cattle farm for beef] also doesn't eat meat. So it's not entirely unheard of for people raised with the "meat is okay" mindset to think otherwise.

There were vegetarians and strict vegetarians [what we now call vegan, but the term didn't come around until last century] in that era and even before, people who made the ethical choice not to eat meat no matter how ingrained in their lifestyle it was. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian and spoke about the morality and health benefits of not eating meat. Report
Sooooo glad I wasn't a colonial chick... Report
Everything I cook will be vegan:) Baked beans, potato salad, grilled corn on the cob, burgers and smart dogs. I'll also be making a vegan chocolate cake to celebrate my birthday (the 5th).

I'm sure it was a matter of practicality more than style, but I like that the colonists left the feet and head attached to the animal. That way you knew exactly what you were eating. Today, besides fish, you don't see many animal faces in the grocery store and I think it takes away the awareness of what if being consumed. Report
An all-local feast - ribs and chicken on the grill, LOTS of local fresh veggie dishes on the side. Report
When we spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing a meal we really have no idea what our ancestors went through each day. There are still lots of people in this world who still live like that. We are very blessed. Report
I choose a little fireworks over food for celebrating the 4th... no speical menu here ;) Report
This was a very interesting blog, thanks!!!
Actually, the long skirts the women wore were a fire hazard. Cooking was done at the open hearth, not on a stove. There was a hook that swung out from over the hot coals that held the pot for soup or hot water, pans and skillets that had legs - so the hot coals could be placed under them. And there was a special pot with a rimmed lid for baking. The cook placed hot coals on top of the lid. I had the privilege to make cornbread on an open hearth at an historical village several years ago. It is quite an experience to cook the way the colonials did. It was a hot and dangerous daily chore. i do appreciate my stove and microwave! Report
I'll be flying to the Czech Republic on the fourth, but we are planning on having a celebration there a couple of days later....with hot dogs, popcorn and whatever else we can muster together! Report
glad I'm not living in that era Report
What I eat depends on where I'll be... If I'm home, I will probably have chicken with fruit & vegies. If I'm at someone else's house, I don't really have a say....
Thank you to everyone who has served our wonderful country and their families!! My husband and I come from families that are - or have served (my dad volunteered for 2 tours in Vietnam). We appreciare all you do and have done! Report
LOL LolaMom2 "If I had to kill and clean my own chickens, I would probably become a vegan fairly quickly." Although if you were born and raised in that era, I'm sure it would have just been the norm for you and you wouldn't have thought twice about doing it. You probably would get some funny looks declaring yourself "vegan", if that term even existed back then. I find it funny now as I live in the suburbs of a large city and people where I live have that same attitude about killing and cleaning their own meat. Yet, I grew up in a rural area of farmers, fishers, and hunters, and many people there rely on raising or hunting meat to get them through the winter and killing and cleaning animals is something they don't think twice about. When I mentioned the term vegan to a few of my friends from back home, they had no idea what it meant and had never even heard of the term before. Again, it all depends on how you were raised!
They knew how to "salt" down meats. Read the book "SALT" and you learn SO much about how foods were kept. The other book "COD" is another interesting book. Report
Keeping the homefires burning with my 4-footed family while my husband works overseas, I minimize holidays--usually just watch whatever TV marathon Hallmark Channel is offering. And say a prayer of gratitude for our military personnel past and present! I think I'll take advantage of Georgia's sweet corn being 25 cents an ear and make up some corn chowder. Report
ms.pooh44 u r o.k. I feel the same way! what a tale!!! really never even in a movie but quite entertaining! I will tell of this skirt burning this 4th of July! We will have fresh caught fish from the lake and a salad from local farmers! also whats the 4th w/o watermelon! Report
Nothing - I will celebrate what was known in my callow youth as "Dominion Day". Report
"Raw fruits and vegetables were considered unappetizing, so they were boiled vigorously with lots of sugar added to make them tastier."

I guess we can see why George Washington had to get dentures so young... Report
My 4th of July will be a quite family get together probable with hamburgers on the grill. Bless all the service men and women for their service to this country! Report
If I had to kill and clean my own chickens, I would probably become a vegan fairly quickly. Report
Really makes you appreciate supermarkets...It is so easy to forget how much tougher life was back then. Report
Also, heavy and flavorful spices and seasonings were added to leftover meats that may have started to spoil in order to cover up the flavor so that they would still be edible. Report
We're not cooking on the 4th...we're holding out 'til the weekend. Then, it'll probably be whatever we have in the house...steak, chicken, maybe some veggies on the grill.

And I kinda suspected that some of the info in this article was a little far-fetched...I'd never heard that burning deaths were particularly high for women due to cooking. You would think that, had that been the case, we would've heard it before now. And I always thought the early settlers had ways of preserving the spring and summer harvests to get through the winters...

There I go being knit-picky again... Report
Whatever's in the fride or freezer. Holidays don't mean much to me and traditions even less. Report
I like the whole eating what is in season. However, I also know from growing up on a farm, that you can let fresh meat (animals) hang over night. They actually taste better. Wild game you let hang for a couple days before preparing it. Report
Fatty, sweet and spicy meals were favored in no small part because those factors were costly and unusual.

And the fire danger to open hearth cooking has been greatly exagerated for the pre-Revolutionary era. That danger increased when cotton stopped being a luxury fabric. The leading causes of death were disease and childbirth.