Table Manners

Take the Pilgrims. The settlers who held the first Thanksgiving came to Massachusetts with a goal of self-sufficiency in proper English fashion. They wanted to show those high-church types what clean living and a new world could do for godliness, but they didn’t want to grow so foreign that they couldn’t be emulated in the old country. Arriving in Plymouth to plant seeds of salvation, they quickly found problems with the soil–namely, that it wouldn’t grow wheat, the staple crop of choice for proper English families. Corn was much better suited to New England soil; the Indians seemingly could grow it without effort, a double affront to an already well-cultivated Protestant work ethic. Building a colony on corn automatically threw the Puritans off their script.

In old England, corn was something fed to pigs, and its New World status as the preferred crop of heathens didn’t help matters either. But holiness doesn’t stave off starvation, so the Puritans began to grow corn. In time, they even grew to like it. In 1662, colonial leader John Winthrop stood before the Royal Society of London to make the case that corn was completely fit for human consumption and just as good as wheat “like someone today saying that we should eat dog food,” McWilliams observes. It’s not hard to imagine Winthrop, returning to his colony after a skeptical reception in London, realizing that while his colony served the English crown, it wasn’t as English as he had once thought or hoped.

Similar narratives played out in other colonies, though with different outcomes. Homesick New Englanders may have wrestled with how their new diets affected their identities, but Virginians just wanted to make money. Although they had settled in one of the most fertile regions of the colonies, the largely male, largely lower-gentry settlers showed little skill in agriculture. As tombstones in colonial graveyards attest, starvation was common in early Virginia. Jamestown was settled in 1607, but no one bothered to plant a personal garden until 1610. Its colonists preferred instead to secure food through bartering with the native population or, in a few cases, to simply eat each other–in one instance a Virginia colonist butchered his own wife, salted her flesh, and grilled her for dinner. In 1616, tobacco was successfully introduced as a cash crop, but it couldn’t be eaten. Virginians eventually solved their food shortages in accordance with their own values: They embraced native crops, growing fruit orchards along with corn, and caring less than their northern neighbors about whether England thought they were eating pig food. And they found other people to do farm work–first the natives themselves, then poorer Europeans, and, ultimately, slaves.

McWilliams doesn’t focus solely on early English settlers. He also turns his gaze to the German and Dutch immigrants of Pennsylvania, who, along with popularizing scrapple, a German-influenced concoction of pig scraps that used native ingredients, also grew wheat fields that corn-fed New Englanders could only envy. Located between the planters of Virginia and the homesteaders up north, the Pennsylvanians combined the two paths of development. Wheat didn’t demand the intense labor that shaped the tobacco slave society, but the land requirements of wheat ensured not only that Pennsylvania wheat-growers would never meet New England standards of self-sufficiency, but that they would also have to move west as their land grew exhausted. The result in Pennsylvania was the development of extensive road networks unmatched in other colonies and the rise of towns like Philadelphia as trade centers.

After establishing the pluribus, McWilliams turns toward the unum of how food production and trade ultimately bound the colonies together. As is true in many unions, alcohol played a role in establishing connections. The need to transport and trade hard liquor helped spur the growth of inter-colonial commerce in the 18th century. By the 1770s–ironically a period when rising standards of living made Anglophilia fashionable among the prosperous colonial classes–Americans had developed a network of trade that exposed them to their colonial neighbors, reinforced their common identity despite regional differences, and, at the same time, made Britain seem more and more foreign. Local rum was considered better than British imports. “American” cookbooks were coming out. With ties established and bellies full, talk turned toward the need for political–and culinary–independence from the oppressive Brits.

Much of the ground McWil-liams tilled has been covered before, but usually either as part of a larger thesis of American development, or in miniature as a journal article on a singular phenomenon. A Revolution in Eating does bear some similarities to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion Seed, but McWilliams’s work is less sweeping in scope (he sticks to cultural-history-through-food, rather than cultural-history-through-everything-else) and more inclusive in subject matter (he pays greater attention to non-British communities and colonists’ interactions with slaves and Indians). Cuisine is usually treated as an interesting sidebar of American history, and, in the largest sense, that’s appropriate: Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly ate while composing the Declaration of Independence, but whether he chose cherries for dessert probably didn’t have much effect on his composition. But the fact that Jefferson was a Virginia planter with lots of leisure time and slaves did shape his outlook and identity.

McWilliams carefully limits his historical scope to colonial America and doesn’t try to overstate his case, acknowledging that the prominent role food choices once played in shaping American history simply isn’t the case today. But even in its more conveniently packaged, quicker-to-prepare contemporary form, cuisine remains at least an indicator of culture in the 21st century. If you’re afraid of grits, for example, you probably aren’t from the South. And if you don’t like scrapple? That’s OK, it’s a Midwest thing–but McWilliams may help you understand.

Washington Monthly - Donate Today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation