The Colonial Cookbook by Lucille Recht Penner, 1976.

This cookbook explains the history of food, cooking, and dining habits in Colonial America and provides recipes that readers can make themselves.

The first part of the book provides most of the historical background, although each section of recipes also has some additional information. The earliest European colonists in North America had to struggle to feed themselves. In many ways, they were unprepared for their lives as colonists, and not all of them had planned to stay as long as they did. The ones who hadn’t planned to stay long had heard stories about gold and silver in the New World, and they had hoped to stay only long enough to seek their fortunes and return home rich. The realities of life in North America did not meet their expectations and survival turned out to be harder than they thought.

The colonists ended up relying on Native Americans (called “Indians” in this book) to help them survive. As they used up the stores of salted beef and hard biscuits that they had brought with them, they began trading for food with the Native American tribes. From the Native Americans, they also learned farming, finishing, hunting, and foraging techniques that they used to help themselves survive. There were many edible plants and animals at hand, but the early colonists were unaccustomed to which plants in the Americas were edible and how to find them and where to find and trap animals. One of the chores colonial children were given was to gather wild plants for the family to eat, like nuts, mushrooms, dandelion greens, wild leeks and onions, and wild fruit, like plums, cherries, melons, and berries.

Gradually, as the colonies grew, the colonists established farms and farm fields. They needed more land for farming to support their population than modern farms would use to support the same number of people because farming has become more efficient since the colonial era. Later, new colonists came and brought livestock with them. Men and boys usually took responsibility for the livestock on family farms. After animals were butchered, the women and girls would clean and prepare them for eating. Food required much more work to prepare because the colonists had to do all the preparation themselves. Families would not only butcher their own animals but make their own cheese. The book provided details about the processes and tools that colonists used for making their food.

The more specific eating habits of colonists changed over time and varied depending on where the colonists lived in North America and where they had originally come from. For early colonists, meals were eaten off of trenchers made from pieces of stale bread, and the day began with a breakfast of mush or pudding with cider or beer to drink. Later, foods became more varied. People in New England often ate fruit pies for breakfast, and people in the Middle Colonies liked scrapple (a cornmeal mush with pork scraps) and oly koeks (a kind of holeless donut containing bits of fruit). (Neither scrapple nor oly koeks appear as recipes in this book, but there are recipes online.) Southern plantation owners had elaborate breakfasts with many different kinds of food, including ham, eggs, pastries, and more, but poor people typically had mush and scraps of leftovers.

The book provides a variety of recipes, organized by type. Most of the recipes in the book do not look too difficult, although some call for more unusual ingredients, like rosewater. You can still find it, although I’ve usually seen it at specialty cooking stores or import stores. The categories are soups, meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, puddings, breads, sweets, drinks, and sauces and relishes. Not all of the recipes look like things that would interest modern children. I don’t imagine that many children would be excited at the idea of making Scalloped Oysters, for example. (Seafood was an important food source for early colonists.) Even though children might recognize Pease Porridge from the rhyme, I’m not sure that a thick pea soup would be something that they would be excited to eat, either. Hasty pudding is mentioned in the song Yankee Doodle, but the recipe itself is a little bland. The book does mention that you can flavor it with maple syrup, and there are other cornbread pudding recipes that contain spices and sweeteners in the book.

However, there are some recipes that I think would be interesting to try. The book explains that pumpkins were a staple food for the early colonists, as shown by the old rhyme from the Plymouth:

We have pumpkin at morning
And pumpkin at noon
If it was not for pumpkin
We would be undoon.

The book explains the different ways that colonists would prepare pumpkin. You can bake it and eat it in pieces with syrup, molasses, honey, or cream. The book explains how to cook it, and it also provides a recipe for Pumpkin Pudding, which can be made with either fresh pumpkin or canned pumpkin. I haven’t made it yet myself, but from the recipe, it reminds me of a pumpkin pie without the crust:

Johnny Cakes are a little like pancakes but made with cornmeal. The basic recipe is a little plain, but they can be served with butter and maple syrup.

This book was published in 1976, which was the United States’ Bicentennial celebration. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find an online edition yet.

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