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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Comments (7)
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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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