Monday, September 19, 2011

American Cuisine Reflects Our History

Originally published August 9 & 13, 1984

Among primitive peoples it would seem that cooking has been the woman’s job; but as soon as people became civilized and began to think of what they ate as a gift from the gods for which they should be grateful, a religious element entered into the preparation of food which then seems to have become the duty of men. Men have always sought to make the exercise of religion an all-male affair, and in the olden days especially, women were kept on the periphery of all such activities, except for fertility rites and minor roles as soothsayers and voices for oracles. And so it seems to have been with cooking, certainly where the preparation of the “burned offerings” were concerned - those token sacrifices which purported to give the gods their “share” of the food, but which were mere whiffs of glorious smells, while their priests and the people ate the food.

In the days of Homer, even kings were not above cooking their own meals, and, judging by the pictures of cooking scenes and the models found in the tombs, Egyptian cooks were all men, as were Greek and Roman cooks.

Early American housewives, like their European contemporaries, were feeding families while their husbands were occupied with hunting for game or coaxing crops from the virgin soil.

After the War of Independence, the city lady of the eastern seaboard had her servants, her table silver, her coffee, white bread, imported cheese, salads and white loaf sugar. She would have been quite at home in one of the capitals of Europe.

On a prosperous eastern farm, the housewife lived almost as comfortably as her sister in the city, though her daily tasks were more demanding. The household had to be supervised, as had food and accommodations for the farmhands. There were dairying, pickling and preserving to be seen to. The smokehouse had to be hung with meat and game for the winter; the root cellar to be filled with bins of potatoes, dried corn, beans and squash, as well as barrels full of apples.

The poorer farm wife further inland lived close to American beginnings. She seasoned her stews as often with maple syrup as with salt, sweetened her pies with molasses, cooked cornmeal mush more often than bread, broiled fresh meat or fish only when her man had a good day’s hunting. If the soil was poor, the family pulled up stakes and moved on in search of better. Good housewives learned to make butter on the march “by dashing of the wagon, and so nicely to calculate the working of barm (leavening) in the jolting heats that, as soon after the halt as an oven can be dug in the hillside and heated, their well-kneaded loaf was ready for baking.” But most women stocked up on dried corn, johnny cakes, pocket soup and preserved meats for their journeys into the unknown.

As new settlers arrived in America from various countries, they introduced their own traditional dishes, judiciously adapted when necessary to suit the ingredients available. The English brought apple pie. The French introduced chowder (the fish kettle). The Dutch brought cookies (koekjes), cole slaw (cabbage salad) and waffles. In the end, the American cuisine became a mirror of history, the names of its dishes reflecting a medley of peoples, religions, wars, geographical locations, even occupations. There were Shaker Loaf, burgoo, Maryland chicken, snickerdoodles, spoon bread, cowpoke beans, hush puppies, jambalaya, pandowdy, Boston baked beans, Philadelphia pepper pot, Moravian sugar cake, Swedish meatballs, whaler’s toddy…

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