A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food
James E. McWilliams
New England Boiled Dinner. Can there be four more fearsome words in the English language? I grew up in a boiling household and the idea of enshrining that flavor-destroying technique in the name of the meal strikes terror in my tummy.
So you can imagine my confusion when confronting a litany of the typical New England kitchen garden circa 1700 or so. This is just a patial list of things I didn’t expect to see: leeks, currants. mint, asparagus. artichokes, basil, garlic, endive and shallots. (pp. 67-71 passim) I’m not certain how one gets from a larder that varied to soft, gray stew. Alas, that tale lies outside the timeframe of this study.
That’s a small complaint, though. There’s enough to be learned here to warrant spending time with this book and savoring it like a fine meal. Its author, James E. McWilliams, has been mentioned in this space before and in fact it was that encounter that spurred me to find the present volume.
Professor McWilliams is an historian who focuses on the colonial era in America. He has an abiding, almost anthropological interest in foodways, how they change and what we can learn from them. It’s an approach straight out of David Hackett Fischer. Plus ,he seems to have ticked off a certain kind of foodie so what’s not to like?
If I had the fortitude to be a scholar Fischer would be my model. He’s written on any number of subjects, from Paul Revere‘s ride to Washington‘s crossing of the Delaware to economic growth. But what first caught my attention in Fischer’s work was the way he used what is otherwise sociological information to inform a historical narrative. The economic growth volume mentioned above is a good example and his masterwork is Albion’s Seed, a volume that is so rich I have yet to get through it because it sets me observing and pondering.
I suspect he may have had a similar impact on Dr. McWilliams because sure enough, there on page 169, lies a quote from Fischer himself. I’d actually noted the similarity earlier in the book and went to the back matter to check. What had caught my eye was a narrative inventory of kitchenware in Salem and nearby towns. My first thought was, ‘Why isn’t this is arrayed in a table the way Fischer would? ‘ My second thought was to look for his footprints.
New England is just one of the areas that gets a fine going over. McWilliams’ point is that the settlement patterns and the response of early settlers to the local conditions led to regional differences in food but also to differences between the foods eaten in the 13 colonies and the mother country. For good measure, English settlements in the Caribbean also get some attention.
So, what’s to know? Well, New England managed to work itself to a state of self-sufficiency. If you’ve spent any time in the region that’s a wonder unto itself. Rocky is a nice way of describing the place. But they did that at the expense of the local population in order to recreate the foods they’d known in England. In other regions different patterns emerged.
In the middle colonies, the Pennsylvania to New York span, farmers became net exporters of grain. The presence of a cash-crop made economic specialization possible and so a varied, integrated economy emerged. And if you’re looking for villains this is a better place to start than further north. It turns out that the very American idea of food as merely fuel is a Quaker belief which was easy on both the passions and the bad dentition. The Friends were also the original ‘boil it until it’s beyond soft’ gastronomes.
Further south, and in the Caribbean, it gets more interesting. In Maryland and the Tidewater region of Virginia, there was more interaction with both Native Americans and slaves. In this case tobacco was the cash crop and while just over the Mason Dixon line a cash crop helped form a varied economy the requirements of that pesky weed had an opposite effect here. Work patterns and the climate–think of the summer if you’re not right on Chesapeake Bay–conspired to vary the diet and the approach to cooking.
But it’s the low countries that, perversely, get things right but for all the wrong reasons. South Carolina and the adjacent colonies were full of adventurers intent on finding their own cash crop. It just took much longer to do so than anyone expected. And in the meantime they had to eat even though they were committed to working little. So the slaves and the Indians drove the comestibles and it’s why a low country boil is the delight that it is and not an affront to hot water.
The colonies in the Caribbean serve, throughout, as a wild contrast. A place where the landowners left slaves to fend for themselves only to find out how dependent on them they were for basics like something to eat. It’s a fascinating contrast and puts all those sugar mills that dot Antigua into a new perspective.
In case it isn’t clear, this is history done right. No boring recitation of dates and treaties and provisos. Just a well told tale of how people in a completely alien place went about one of life’s more basic functions.
Read the book, it could be the best brian food you consume this year.
The title of this post is drawn from a Cab Calloway tune recorded in 1948. I saw Calloway, then apporaching 80, at SUNY Purchase more than 35 years ago and I still remember a wild man tearing through ‘Old Man River’ in about 2 minutes flat. This is a fun tune and someday I’ll get around to a food playlist. Until then, ‘let’s eat, Pete.’