What Americans Ate for Breakfast & Dinner 200 Years Ago: Watch Re-Creations of Original Recipes

For all the other faults of the 2020s, most of humanity now enjoys culinary variety the likes of which it has never before known. Two centuries ago, the selection was considerably narrower. Back then the United States of America, yet to become the highly developed leader of “the free world,” remained for the most part a fairly hardscrabble land. This comes through in a book like Democracy in America, which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after traveling across the county in the 1830s — or on a Youtube channel like Early American, which re-creates life as lived by Americans of decades before then.

Not long ago, Early American’s viewership exploded. This seems to have owed to cooking videos like the one at the top of the post, “A Regular Folks’ Supper 200 Years Ago.” The menu, on this imagined March day in 1820 Missouri, includes beef, mashed turnips, carrots, rolls, and boiled eggs: not a bad-looking spread, as it turns out, though its flavors may leave something to be desired for the twenty-first-century palate.

Many of Early American’s new commenters, writes channel co-creator Justine Dorn, are telling her “to add this seasoning and this and that,” but “then it would no longer be loyal to the actual original recipe, which is why you all are here to begin with.”

In the case of the regular folks’ supper, its recipes come straight from an 1803 volume called The Frugal Housewife. As for the johnnycakes featured in “Making a Working Class Breakfast in 1820,” you’ll find their recipe in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery from 1796, the first known cookbook written by an American. The meal also includes a yeastless bread for which no proper recipe exists. However, Dorn writes, “there are several mentions of working class people who baked bread without yeast in the autobiographies of travelers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Because of this we know that it was a common practice.”

Made from a modified family recipe passed down since the 1750s, this yeastless bread looks appealing enough, especially toasted over the fire and served with apple butter. But we must acknowledge that tastes have changed over the centuries. “I am not claiming that this food is good,” Dorn writes. “Sometimes it isn’t. A lot of the foods and seasonings that we take for granted today were very hard to get back then or were only seasonally available.” But with seasonal, “locally sourced” ingredients in vogue these days, it’s worth examining what, 200 years ago, really went into a simple Indian meal pudding or an early macaroni and cheese — albeit one prepared, in true 2020s fashion, ASMR-style.

Related Content:

The First American Cookbook: Sample Recipes from American Cookery (1796)

Tasting History: A Hit YouTube Series Shows How to Cook the Foods of Ancient Greece & Rome, Medieval Europe, and Other Places & Periods

An Archive of 3,000 Vintage Cookbooks Lets You Travel Back Through Culinary Time

A Database of 5,000 Historical Cookbooks–Covering 1,000 Years of Food History–Is Now Online

Archive of Handwritten Recipes (1600 – 1960) Will Teach You How to Stew a Calf’s Head and More

10,000 Vintage Recipe Books Are Now Digitized in The Internet Archive’s Cookbook & Home Economics Collection

Real Interviews with People Who Lived in the 1800s

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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  • Adrienne Boswell says:

    It was common practice to make yeastless bread because people used starters. Cookbooks at the time would assume to the reader knew to include starter, there was no need to mention it. Just as there is no specific water mentioned in spaghetti and meatballs, authors assume readers know to boil pasta in water. Additionally, most people had access to a year-round herb garden so foods were probably not as bland as they seem to be as cooks would include whatever herbs, seeds, or bark they had available.

  • Monty Pittman says:

    I was reading the above story and it brought back childhood memories of my Mama making homemade hoecakes in a cast iron frying pan, using flour, lard and buttermilk, mixing/kneading it all together, then flattening it out in the cast iron, along with bacon drippings, then cooking it on the stovetop, serving it with the breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon & fatback and occasionally Vienna sausage that we’d mix in with our grits.
    Sometimes on Saturdays, she would fry up salted mackerel, serve it with grits and make what she would call spread out bread that was baked, using basically the same recipe as the hoe cake. My parents provided the best they could raising four growing kids back in the 50’s/60’s.

  • Gramzie Wytch says:

    What an experience, watching those old-fashioned methods becoming what looked like delicious meals. In this day & age, when people can push a buuton & have a meal ready in minutes, it shows how far-removed we are from the tedious & time-consuming ways were needed just to put a delectable meal on the table! Love these videos…I’d like to try some of the recipes too…although in my modern day oven/stove.

  • Lisa Brown says:

    Amazing. I really enjoyed watching this. The recipe simple. different how meals are prepared in the fireplace. Awesome historic history, thank you.

  • Leonard says:

    As a native New Englander, however transplanted elsewhere, all I can say is “ Thank You.” These demonstrations clearly reinforce the philosophies of, “Waste not, want not” and “Fix it, make do, or do without!”
    These were tough people living in tough times” and yet they built lives so strong that we stand on their shoulders today. Again, thank you.

  • Karen A Schwabauer says:

    I don’t think those are turnips, I believe they are rutabagas.

  • Marlene E Thomas says:

    I really enjoyed watching the video it was very enlightening.

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