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A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America by James McWilliams

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In A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, James E. McWilliams takes the reader on a culinary tour of Colonial America — from the British West Indies to the regional cuisines of the 13 colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The book focuses on the many ways British colonists, Native Americans, and enslaved people of African descent influenced and adapted to new ingredients, landscapes, cooking methods, and attitudes about food. We also learn about the evolution of regional American foodways from the self-sufficient farms of New England to the establishment of rice as the staple cash crop in the Carolinas.

The following excerpt illustrates how with the publication of the first American cookbook in 1796, Americans were cooking up a "culinary Declaration of Independence" by introducing uniquely American recipes alongside the traditional British ones.


The development of a unique American cuisine began with an angry rejection of English culture and, afterward, a polite refusal of French food. It wouldn't have been unexpected if, after the Revolutionary War, Americans had taken a step toward adopting the relatively fancified cooking tradition of the French. There were plenty of reasons to do so. The Americans and French had been loyal allies during the Revolution; Jefferson had become an inveterate Francophile during the war; and the French were gearing up to fight a revolution of their own based on principles adopted from the Americans. A cultural connection of sorts therefore existed. But evidence that, despite the appeal of French food to America's first four presidents, French gastronomy would go virtually nowhere in early America came in 1793 when the Bostonians served their French residents a meal to honor the French Revolution of 1789. The feast began not with the expected pot-au-feu but with the Bostonians hanging a 'Peace Offering to Liberty and Equality' sign around the neck of an ox, leading it to Liberty Square, slaughtering it, and eating it with sixteen hundred loaves of bread, corn mush, turkey, and two hogsheads of punch-an American affair if there ever was one.

The more Americans learned about French food, in fact, the more they came to misunderstand and dislike it, and the more they came to realize what theirs was all about. Patrick Henry, the vocal Revolutionary agitator from Virginia, criticized Jefferson's taste in French food as an effete affectation that made him 'abjure his native victuals.' Many years later, in 1840, when William Henry Harrison slung mud at his opponent for the presidency, Martin Van Buren, he did so by depicting him as eating pâté de foie gras and soup á la reine. Harrison, by contrast, portrayed himself-despite his privileged upbringing- as living in a log cabin and knocking back hard cider on the front porch after a hard day in the fields. The American rejection of French food was, two historians of American food write, 'by no means the only demonstration in American history of the curious fact that in America it is politically disadvantageous to be known as a gourmet, as though there were something unmanly in being discriminating about, or even attentive to, what one eats.'

But Americans did care about what they ate, and much evidence indicates that they wanted their food to be-like their newly articulated political principles-honest, virtuous, simple, free from artifice, and, in a way, robust. Newspapers printed recipes for such patriotic dishes as Independence Cake, Federal Cake, Election Cake, and Ratification Cake. And when one tired of patriotic cake, there was always Congressional Bean Soup. For those who followed recipes, however, cookbooks were the norm. The cookbooks that were published in early America, as we've seen, were largely relics of the English system of cookery that, more often than not, are more interesting for their plagiarizing from English sources dating back to the 1730s than for their recording of rough-hewn American innovations. Their use is thus somewhat limited because the recipes were very likely more popular from the 1740s to the 1760s than they were after the American Revolution and into the early nineteenth century.

That said, some sense of America's culinary 'return to homespun' comes through in several selected recipes. Choices from American cookbooks after 1796 (when the first one was published) use ingredients native to America in their recipes. In American Cookery, Amelia Simmons basically lifted recipes from English cookbooks, but still formally introduced Americans to such foods as 'cranberry sauce,' 'pompkin pie,' Indian pudding, and cornmeal bread. Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in Virginia in 1805, also reads like an old English cookbook, with the exception of seven wonderful pages, all included under the subtitle "several new receipts adapted to the American mode of cooking." These recipes standout in stark contrast to those in the rest of the book for their simplicity and homespun nature. A brief sampling conveys a taste of this 'American mode' while providing a telling point of comparison to European traditions:

TO MAKE MUSH Boil a pot of water...and then stir in the meal till it becomes quite thick, stirring it all the time to keep out the lumps, season with salt, and eat it with milk or molasses.

TO MAKE A BAKED INDIAN PUDDING One quart of boiled milk to five spoonfuls of Indian meal, one gill of molasses,and salt to your taste.

TO MAKE PUMPKIN PIE Take the Pumpkin and peel the rind off, then stew it till it is quite soft, and put there to one pint of pumpkin, one pint of milk, one glass of Malaga wine, one glass of rose-water, if you like it, seven eggs, half a pound of fresh butter, one small nutmeg, and sugar and salt to your taste.

TO MAKE BLOOD PUDDINGS Take your Indian meal...and scald it with boiled milk or water, then stir in your blood, straining it first, mince the hog's lard and put it in the pudding, then season it with treacle...put it in a bag and let it boil six or seven hours.

TO MAKE CRANBERRY TARTS To one pound of flour three quarters of a pound of butter, then stew your cranberry's to a jelly. Putting good brown sugar in to sweeten them, strain the cranberry's and then put them in your patty pans for baking in a moderate oven for half an hour.

TO MAKE A RAISED PORK PIE Take six ounces of butter to one pound of flour, boil the butter in a -sufficient quantity of water to mix with the flour hot, let the paste be stiff and form it in around shape with your hands, then put in your pork, season to your taste with pepper and salt, and then bake it for about an hour.

TO MAKE PEACH SWEETMEATS To one pound of Peaches put half a pound of good brown sugar, with a half a pint of water to dissolve it, first clarifying it with an egg; then boil the peaches and sugar together, skimming the egg off... till it is of the thickness of a jelly ...pears are done the same way.

TO MAKE A POT PIE Make a crust and put it around the sides of your pot, then cut your meat in small pieces, of whatever kind the pot-pie is to be made of, and season it with pepper and salt, then put it in the pot and fill it with water, close it with paste on the top; it will take three hours doing.

The recipes are unusual in that they were meant to be followed. Unlike the more traditional English recipes published in Glasse's book, they generally use native ingredients, or at least ingredients commonly available throughout America; they are described in a much more basic manner than the English recipes; and they are much easier to carry out than the other recipes she provides. It would have been quite obvious to seasoned readers at the time that most of her recipes were truncated and scaled-down versions of the English standard.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.

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