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.
English Katchup, A Slurry Of Mushrooms, Walnuts, Oysters, And AnchoviesPhoto: Chemical Heritage Foundation/Public domain/CC BY 3.0 / via Wikimedia Commons
The ketchup we know and love today bears virtually no resemblance to the "katchup" that Colonial Americans enjoyed in the 18th century. Their katchup wasn't even tomato-based. In fact, it was an Asian-inspired sauce made from a mixture of ingredients, like mushrooms, walnuts, oysters, and anchovies.
One recipe for katchup from Colonial Williamsburg calls for an equally bizarre combination of vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, anchovies, horseradish, and nutmeg. Colonial Americans would then eat the savory sauce on meat or fish.
Lobster, A Dish Best Served To Poor People, Slaves, And Prisoners
Though some foods have remained constant over the centuries, the meanings and associations of those foods have changed dramatically. For most contemporary Americans, lobster connotes an expensive, splurge-worthy meal. Not so for early Americans. The British North American Colonies clung to the Atlantic seaboard, making seafood common. There was no more common food - in all senses of the word - than the then-lowly lobster.
In fact, lobster as a meal was associated with the vulgar lower classes of Colonial America.
Lobsters were so cheap, in fact, that they were used to feed slaves and prisoners.
Clabber, Curdled Milk With A Little Pepper On Top
"Clabber" was actually less disgusting than its name might suggest. It was simply a form of yogurt made from soured, curdled milk - in an era before refrigeration, so it was also pretty strong and sour. People would typically add toppings - like cinnamon, nutmeg, or pepper - to flavor the clabber.
Like many American foods, clabber was an immigrant: it came to the Appalachian backcountry with the Scotch-Irish in the 18th century.
Turtle Soup, A Wealthy Household Staple
One of the trendiest foods in the 18th century was indisputably the turtle. Virtually every wealthy household had a tried and true recipe for turtle soup. Though turtle soup was consumed on both sides of the Atlantic - the imperial trade meant that wealthy families in Britain and France got access to turtles from the Colonies - it was especially prevalent in Virginia and Maryland, where there were plenty of turtles.
Cooked with wine and butter, turtle soup was considered a rich, decadent dish.