What the early settlers ate and how they obtained it was of crucial importance during the Colonial era. The early Jamestown colonists were at first amazed by the abundant amount of food in the New World, but nearly three-quarters of them died during the winter of 1609-1610 because of food shortages, according to the online Encyclopedia Virginia. Over time, though, the surviving colonists learned to better control their methods of food production so they had enough to go around.
While the story of the first Thanksgiving tells of how the Native Americans befriended the colonists of Plymouth, the settlers at Jamestown had a different experience. Joy Hakim, in her book "Making Thirteen Colonies," tells how the Powhatan Indians, while helpful at first, later refused to trade with the colonists and later laid siege to the settlement so no one could get out to hunt or fish.
Plimoth Plantation historians tell us that in Colonial times people didn't drink too much water because they thought it would make them sick. Milk was also scarce because few cows were available, and what little milk they had was usually made into butter and cheese. Instead, most colonists, even children, drank beer daily, particularly for breakfast. Hard cider was also popular because apples were readily available.
American colonists usually ate three meals a day, but those meals were a little different than the ones we've come to know. According to "A Cooking Legacy" by Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan, breakfast usually consisted of a mug of beer, some bread and cheese, or a bowl of porridge, which was usually made of corn or beans rather than oats. Dinner, eaten in the middle of the day, might also include porridge, with the addition of some meat, cheese and vegetables. Supper was a lighter meal eaten in the evening, usually made up of leftovers from dinner.
In wintertime, wild game was scarce and fruits and vegetables were unavailable to the colonists, so they had to store food to get them through the season. Nowadays, we have the ability to can or freeze our food so that it's available year-round, but back then food storage was more difficult. Historians at Colonial Williamsburg tell us that meats were smoked and dried or pickled by soaking in vinegar. Most vegetables were also pickled, and fruits were usually sliced thin and dried.
Dishes and Utensils
In the book "Everyday Life: Colonial Times," author Walter A. Hazen tells how forks were rare during the Colonial period, so food was usually eaten with the fingers. This could get kind of messy, so plenty of linen napkins were used at each meal. Wooden boards called trenchers were used as plates, and these were usually shared between several people. Mugs would be used for beverages or liquid foods such as soup.
- Everyday Life: Colonial Times; Walter A. Hazen
- A Cooking Legacy; Virginia T. Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan
- Plimoth Plantation: What's for Dinner?
- Colonial Williamsburg Kids: More Food
- Archiving Early America: The Spirits of Our Forefathers
- Encyclopedia Virginia: The Starving Time
- Making Thirteen Colonies; Joy Hakim
- Colonial Williamsburg: Rattle-Skull, Stonewall, Bogus, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, Whistle Belly, Syllabub, Sling, Toddy, and Flip
- Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images