15 Disgusting Foods People Really Ate In 18th Century America

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.

  • Beaver Tail, Some Delicious "Gamey-Tasting Fat"

    Beaver Tail, Some Delicious "Gamey-Tasting Fat"
    Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The huge population of beaver in North America meant that the Great Lakes region hosted a booming fur trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. It should come as no surprise, then, that beaver meat was also consumed. Beaver tail was a particular - and peculiar - delicacy in Colonial America.

    The meat was very fatty and typically roasted, and it has been described by at least one contemporary cookbook writer as "essentially gamey-tasting fat." 

  • Chocolate Mixed With Ambergris, A Decadent Delight

    Chocolate Mixed With Ambergris, A Decadent Delight
    Photo: US Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Whale vomit? One of history's most stomach-churning food additives is known as ambergris and, in essence, it's expensive whale spit-up - and men and women in the 18th century loved to add it to their food for a decadent treat. Adding ambergris to chocolate was a European import. First developed in Europe in the 17th century, the recipe spread. Pretty soon, cooks in Colonial North America were flavoring their chocolate with ambergris, too, thanks in no small part to the growing whaling industry in New England.

    Today, ambergris is used as an ingredient in lots of expensive perfumes, thanks to its musky odor and attractant properties. And, you can still get in fancy hot chocolates some places if the urge ever strikes.

  • Calf's Foot Jelly, A Special Treat You Could Get Just From Boiling A Hoof

    Molded gelatins and jellies were all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century. Calf's foot jelly, in particular, was a well known dish. And it's exactly what it sounds like: a gelatin that emerges while boiling the hoof of a calf.

    Early Americans believed calf's foot jelly was even good for the sick

  • Oyster Ice Cream, Dolley Madison's Dessert Of Choice

    Oyster Ice Cream, Dolley Madison's Dessert Of Choice
    Photo: Jean-Étienne Liotard / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    By the second half of the 18th century, ice cream was becoming a beloved - if decadent - dessert. Without modern freezers, however, it was difficult to prepare and keep ice cream, though many notable early Americans did. It just took a massive ice house and a large enough staff to keep large chunks of frozen water around to maintain it. Thomas Jefferson and the Washingtons famously loved ice cream.

    Some liked to experiment with different ice cream flavors. One such flavor: ice cream flavored with oysters, which Dolley Madison supposedly favored. She would churn up the "small, sweet" ones from the nearby Potomac River into a... unique after-dinner sweet.