04/24/07 - the main meal

In today's excerpt - how our forefathers dined:

"The Indians introduced the colonists not only to new foods, but to more interesting ways of preparing them. Succotash, clam chowder, hominy, corn pone, cranberry sauce, johnny cakes, even Boston baked beans and Brunswick stew were all Indian dishes. In Virginia, it was the Indians, not the white settlers, who invented the Smithfield ham. Even with the constant advice and intervention of the Indians, the Puritans stuck to a diet that was for the most part resolutely bland. Meat and vegetables were boiled without pity, deprived of seasonings and served lukewarm. Peas, once they got the hang of growing them, were eaten at almost every meal, and often served cold. The principal repast was taken at midday and called dinner. Supper, a word related to soup ... was often just that—a little soup with perhaps a piece of bread—and was consumed in the evening shortly before retiring. Lunch was a concept unknown, as was the idea of a snack. To the early colonists, snack meant the bite of a dog. ...

"By the time of the Revolution, the main meal was taken between 2 and 4 p.m. A typical meal might consist of salted beef with potatoes and peas, followed by baked or fried eggs, fish and salad, with a variety of sweets, puddings, cheeses, and pastries to finish, all washed down with quantities of alcohol that would leave most of us today unable to rise from the table—or at least rise and stay risen.

"Meat was consumed in quantities that left European observers slack-jawed with astonishment. By the early 1800s, the average American was eating almost 180 pounds of meat a year, 48 pounds more than people would consume a century later, but fresh meat remained largely unknown because of the difficulty keeping it fresh. Even city people often had chickens in the yard and a hog or two left to scavenge in the street. ... Until well into the nineteenth century, visitors to New York remarked on the hazard to traffic presented by wandering hogs along Broadway. Even in the more temperate North, beef and pork would go bad in a day in summer, chicken even quicker, and milk would curdle in as little as an hour. And even among the better classes, spoiled food was a daily hazard. One guest at a dinner party given by the Washingtons noted with a certain vicious relish that the General discreetly pushed his plate of sherry trifle to one side when he discovered that the cream was distinctly iffy, but that the less discerning Martha continued shoveling it in with gusto. Ice cream was a safer option. It was first mentioned in America in the 1740s when a guest at a banquet given by the governor of Maryland wrote about this novelty, which, he noted 'eat most deliciously.' "


Bill Bryson


Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States


First Avon Books


Copyright 1994 by Bill Bryson


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