Weird History
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15 Disgusting Foods People Really Ate In 18th Century America

Updated December 10, 2019 184.7k views15 items

What did people eat in the Colonies? The answer may surprise you. Though popular imagination remembers Colonial America for its quaint tea, ginger cakes, and pudding, the tastes of early Americans were actually far more exotic and fascinating than they may first appear. Colonial-era food was complex, resourceful, and - in some ways - worldly, as early Americans inherited the tastes and recipes of the British culinary tradition, while putting their own spin on it.

Just like foods from around the world that you may not want to try, food in Colonial America might also seem over-the-top, unappetizing, or even gross to modern tastes. Many foods that Colonists loved are no longer made today for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, some foods have survived. Though Colonial Americans proclaimed in 1776 that all men are created equal, all food dishes, it seems, are not.

Crazy Colonial food recipes thus provide an interesting and entertaining window into one of the most important facets of life in the Colonial Era: what people ate. The story of food in Colonial America isn't just about what was on the supper table. Like the culinary profile of any period (like, the Great Depression, to name one example), it's also a story of class, taste, culture, and empire.

  • Eel Pie, So Prized Colonists Would Use Lobsters In Eel Traps

    Photo: Pieter Claesz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Colonial Americans were wild about eel. It was especially consumed in New England, where Colonists would use lobster as bait in eel traps (my, how the tables have turned). Though eel can be eaten any number of ways, eel pie was a popular way of cooking up the sea creature.

    One recipe for eel pie even goes back to the 17th century.

  • Pepper Cake, A Treat You Could Keep In The Pantry For "Halfe" A Year

    Photo: Adriaan de Lelie / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Colonial Americans may have had some of the same ingredients we use today - but that doesn't mean they used them like we do. Case in point: Martha Washington's Pepper Cake recipe from her cookbook, A Booke of Cookery. Pepper, a newly acquired spice from India that could be used to show off a hostess's fancy-schmancy social status, went into the cake alongside sweet ingredients like molasses.

    And here's the kicker - these little babies could (and were meant to) last for "a Quarter or Halfe a Year." Like many in the 18th century, Martha Washington liked to put pepper into things we might not think to add it to, especially sweet, dessert-like concoctions. 

  • Stewed Swan, A Beloved Transatlantic Dish

    Photo: John James Audubon / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Colonial men and women enjoyed a wide variety of specialty meats that have since fallen off the American menu. Take the swan, for example. Today, eating what many consider to be the graceful, elegant swan would probably create an outrage.

    But Colonial Americans didn't think that way. Stewed swan was one of many dishes that Colonists actually copied from England.

  • Applejack, Hard Apple Cider On Steroids

    Photo: Friedrich von Puteani / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Fun fact: apples were not native to North America. Settlers from England actually brought the tree with them, and apples quickly became a dependable, multi-purpose food staple for Colonists. Perhaps the most interesting apple incarnation was applejack, which was basically a hard apple cider on steroids. Colonists created applejack by freezing hard cider. The process of freeze-distillation would jack up the alcohol content of the beverage.

    Though Colonists consumed quite a bit of alcohol, and drinking applejack was like downing many glasses of alcohol at once: applejack was roughly 30% alcohol.