March 16, 2010

Back in the DAY

— On Friday, when you're enjoying your Fourth of July picnic, be thankful it's a hot dog in that bun and not a chunk of salt pork or a -- gulp -- songbird.

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Photo by John Ewing.... Monday, June 30, 2008....Photo illustration of items typically part of July 4th picnics in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Food in the Revolutionary War era could be quite sophisticated if you lived in a wealthy household and had access to the right cooking implements and a variety of foods. Heck, if you were rich, you didn't even have to turn your own meat on the spit. All you needed was a clockjack, or a poor person you could pay to do it for you.

But generally speaking, the food scene in 1776 was built around just a few staples: fat, meat, salt, bread and alcohol. (There's a good reason all the wealthy founding fathers look so plump in those old portraits.) Fresh vegetables were seasonal, and shellfish -- including lobster -- was considered ''pig food.''

Research conducted a few years ago by the American Institute for Cancer Research found that the typical 18th-century diet contained 5,000 calories per day, which makes sense if you're working dawn to dusk scratching out a living. Colonial times were especially tough for settlers trying to carve out a future in the Maine wilderness.

''Fall was a great time, because at harvest time, you had fruit and vegetables and all kinds of fun stuff to eat,'' said Tom Desjardin, a historian with the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. ''But during the winter -- later in the winter, especially -- you had meat, and you had flour and corn meal, if you had made enough of it.

''And you could dry some fruit. They use to string slices of fruit on a string and hang it in the attic to dry. And then in the middle of the winter, if they wanted an apple pie, they'd go up and take down a string and soak it in water to bring the moisture back into it and make a pie.''

American colonists believed eating meat gave them the strength of the animal it came from, whether it was game meat, beef or pork. They didn't often raise this meat themselves, and when they did, they didn't eat it until it had outlived its usefulness. No stewing an old hen, for example, until she was done laying eggs.

''Animals didn't go into the stew pot until they were ready for the glue factory,'' said Suzanne Goldenson, author of ''The Open Hearth Cookbook: Recapturing the Flavor of Early America'' (Alan C. Hood & Co. Inc., $15). ''They ate songbird. That was considered a delicacy. They even had these special bird ovens for songbirds with little hooks.''

Colonial cuisine was based on the English model, which meant lots of boiled food and puddings, including pigeon pudding.

Yes, you read that right. Pigeon pudding.

Colonists also ate a lot of breakfast porridge, mixing it up the night before and letting it cook by the banked embers overnight. The porridge would often sit in the pot for days, just as the children's rhyme says: ''Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.''

The colonists definitely knew how to make food last. One common food was sort of like the bouillon cubes we have today. Cooks allowed all the water to evaporate from their soup until it was dry. This was called ''pocket soup.''

''People who went on long trips into the woods would take little parcels of this,'' Goldenson said, ''and they would reconstitute it if they had a fire with water at their campsite, or they would just suck on it for some nourishment.''


After the Revolution, the country began celebrating its independence with huge celebratory meals that don't sound all that different from what we have today on July 4. The first Fourth of July dinner was held by members of the Continental Congress in 1777 in Philadelphia. Most regular folks wanted to emulate what George Washington, members of Congress and other patriots did on the holiday.

''Eating on the Fourth of July is traditionally one of most important components of the Fourth of July, particularly in small-town America,'' said James Heintze, American University librarian emeritus and author of ''The Fourth of July Encyclopedia (McFarland, $75). ''Entire towns would come out and have dinners for sometimes as many as 2,000 people. They were usually done outside.''

Heintze has done extensive research, poring over old newspaper articles that gave accounts of these post-Revolution but pre-Civil War feasts. They generally started around 1 p.m. and ended around 4 p.m. They were attended only by men, a fact that so miffed some women that eventually they began throwing their own Independence Day bashes.

Barbecued meat was the most important entree at these all-male dinners, Heintze said, because it was a safe to eat. Food poisoning was common at the events.

''Food was left out in the sun all day,'' Heintze said. ''They describe these elaborate tables of pies and cakes and salads and vegetables and fruit in season, and people got sick on the Fourth of July.''

The food for the dinners was prepared by cooks from taverns, and one of the most popular dishes was green turtle soup. Green turtle could be found in virtually every port on the East Coast.

''The ships were coming in every day from all parts of the world, and the ports were incredibly busy, even more busy than in some respects today,'' Heintze said. ''The sailors coming over on these boats would fish for these green turtles because they knew they could sell them to the taverns once they got there.''

Alcohol also flowed freely at these early picnics, particularly madeira wine and spiked punch. Formal toasts approved by a committee were prepared for each of the 13 states, and every time someone gave a toast there would be an artillery salute. There were also ''volunteer toasts'' that could be given by anyone. Hundreds of these toasts were printed in the newspapers, Heintze said. People loved to read them.

''What is so neat about these toasts is that they are always signed,'' he said. ''The person who gave the toast had his name next to it. Now we have a really excellent picture of who was present at the dinners because of these toasts.''

So on Friday, when you are celebrating the Fourth with friends and family, raise a glass to the colonists and these early revelers.

Enjoy some clam chowder instead of green turtle soup.

Have some chicken barbecue, and try not to think about that pigeon pudding.

Don't throw your lobster to the pigs.

And be thankful it's an all-American hot dog in that bun and not an English sparrow.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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