A History of American Eating Habits

PD Family and Lifestyles 15179 On July 4, 1776, nobody in the newly independent country was eating hamburgers or hot dogs or ketchup. Ketchup didn't enter the cuisine until the 1800s, and the hamburgers and hot dogs on buns only got popularized around the turn of the last century. Independence Day was marked quite differently in 1776 from the way it is today.

Food to Fuel an Active Life

For instance, Washington and his soldiers weren't chomping on watermelon. Rather, a soldier's daily ration included about a half pint of beans or peas, a pint of milk, a pound of beef, pork, or salted fish (yes, a pound), and a pound of bread. He also received six ounces of butter. It amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 calories—more than even many overweight people eat today. It wasn't just soldiers who were eating so much food. Most people ate about that amount, too. Yet obesity wasn't rampant. "Daily life required a terrific calorie intake," says Sandra Oliver, a food historian in Islesboro, Maine. It was the "pre-leisure era," she notes. People walked a lot, rode horses, and expended a lot of calories—in their everyday jobs and chores.

No Fish Today

Today, "we think we're being terribly virtuous," Oliver remarks. But the main purpose of eating back then "was [to get] enough calories. For that very reason," she says, while modern people enjoy seafood because it is light, fish "was not preferred in 1776." People generally had fish about once a week.What kind of fish did people eat? Perhaps some cod with salt pork scraps sprinkled on top to "give it a little more caloric punch," Oliver says. There was also plenty of herring and shad in the mid-Atlantic region.Meat, particularly pork, was much more important than herring or any other fish, says Rachel Baum, site supervisor at Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, because pigs were cheap to feed. They could be fattened for slaughter by giving them apple cores, potato peelings, and spoiled foods that humans or other animals couldn't eat. Wild game was often on the menu, too. Turkeys, pigeons, venison, rabbit, squirrel—Colonial roadkill, if you will.

Birth of the One-dish Meal

Most often meat was cooked together with vegetables in a big stew. Since the majority of the population was poor, they didn't have a lot of cooking equipment, explains Wendy Howell, supervisor of the Historic Foodways Program at Colonial Williamsburg. There wasn't one pot for one dish and a second pot for another, so making a stew was a way to cook all the food at once.Stews or other hearty dishes were usually eaten at dinner, which took place around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, during a break from working in the fields. Evening meals, or suppers, were "kind of the optional meal," Howell notes. And they were "very light."

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