As mentioned in
an earlier issue we where one of the first muzzle-loading shops to
handle period correct edibles, cultivated or foraged back in the
late 70's and early 80's. Long before Clark & Sons Mercantile,
Inc. had been born, or entered the Internet business. Some very
talented writers worked with us in gathering these edibles, you
may recognize some of the names; Mark Baker- "Muzzleloaders",
Rick Edwards-editor, John Curry, William Gorby "On The
Trail", Charlie Richie-editor "Backwoodsman",
James Rubine-editor "An Earlier Time", William
Eaton-editor "The Colonial Society" and so on....
The article shown below is from one of our early catalogs.
William Gorby is a free-lance writer, his articles pertain to
early American History covering a wide range of subjects for his
readers. He has given us permission to reprint a (3) part articles
on 18th century foods, first published in "On The Trail"
magazine in 1996. We would like to thank Mr. Gorby for letting us
give our customers some interesting facts.
Life on the
Frontier by William
the last few articles, I covered some of the basics of clothing
that perhaps were helpful to development of your personae. As I
researched the confines of my cluttered brain for material to
share with you, I came across a request in the Sept/Oct
issue of On The Trail that piqued my interest. One of the readers
had inquired about the foods that some of us use when trekking.
This is an area that I had considered researching in depth for
quite some time and now I had the reason.
is information out there on 18th century foods, but it is sure
scattered all over the place. As I gathered the information
together and filed it away for my own use I tried to organize it
in a way that was at least partly logical. The way I collected and
filed it is the way in which I will present it. I have placed
items into general categories such as: fruits, vegetables, grains
and breadstuff, food processing, etc. Hopefully by the time I’ve
completed the cover- age of the 18th century foods we will all be
a little smarter. Of course, the information that you use will
depend on your personae, the time period, geographical location,
and station in life of your portrayal.
all that aside, I would like to start with sugars, chocolate, and
confectionery. This is always my favorite part. In the beginning,
fruits were probably a very principal source of our ability to
sweeten other food stuffs. In addition to fruits, one of the
earliest forms of natural sweetening was found in honey.
Archeological records date the use of honey as far back as 10,000
years. Records of bees and beehives appear as far back as part of
the hieroglyphic records of the Egyptians.
was widely used in Europe from the earliest recorded times until
the 17th century. It was during this time period in Europe that
the increasing availability of cane sugar made honey a less
attractive alternative. Cane sugar is easier to produce, store and
ship and will be discussed later in this article. While bees were
present in the new world prior to the arrival of Europeans they
were exclusively a tropical species and produced honey that was as
such a poor quality that it was considered unusable. European
settlers introduced the honeybee into North America in 1625. The
American Indian, while pleased with the introduction of honey to
North America, considered bees to be the harbinger of the White
Man. The Indian soon discovered that as the bees advanced so
did the White civilization and in proportion both the Red Man and
buffalo also retreated.
is composed of the two simple sugars, fructose and glucose and
more complex sugar, sucrose, along with about 17 percent water. It
has little to offer in the way of vitamins and minerals, but it
does contain a compound known as Hydrogen Peroxide. Early colonial
physicians used honey to dress wounds, noting that it did indeed
retard the advent of infection. Amazingly enough it wasn’t until
1963 that we were able to isolate the compound responsible for
this antibiotic type effect, i.e.. Hydrogen Peroxide. While
I hope that this bit of information is never needed, it could be
useful when trekking with regards to actual colonial first aid.
compound used commonly in the early part of our American history
as a sweetener is maple syrup and maple sugar, both of which are
correct for 17th, 18th, and 19th century trekking. Until the
arrival of honey in North America, maple sugar was the only source
of concentrated sweetness available to the Indians. The Indians
taught the early colonists their techniques of processing the
maple sap to syrup and sugar. Because of the writings of a young
colonist, James Smith, we have an excellent record of how the
Indians extracted the maple sap and then converted into syrup and
sugar. Captured in 1755 and later adopted into a tribe of Indians
in the area now known as Ohio he wrote of his remark- able
adventures in his later years; 1799 to be exact.
to having access to European trade goods, concentrating the sap to
syrup or sugar was a considerable problem. Attempts to boil the
sap using clay pots was only marginally successful. Often the
Indians would construct a tray from birch or elm bark, long and
wide with low sides. They would fill the container with a few
inches of sap and then let it freeze over night. In the morning a
layer of water was frozen on the top and that was discarded,
leaving behind the sugar which did not freeze. This process along
with simple evaporation would concentrate the sap to a point where
it was useable or where it could be boiled in a clay pot with
greater success. Early colonists often used this technique to
concentrate the sap prior to boiling, particularly if they had
only limited access to large kettles.
relatively rare in Europe, North America has some 100 species of
maple trees, four of which are useful in sugar and syrup
production. A single tree may yield 12 gallons in one season. It
takes about 35 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. In its
final concentration maple syrup is approximately 62% sucrose, 1%
glucose, 1% fructose, 1% malic acid, and 35% water. The
characteristic flavor of the syrup is the result of a complex
reaction between the sugars and amino acids in the sap. The longer
and hotter the syrup is boiled, the heavier the taste.
sugar is made by concentrating the sugars in the syrup to a point
that that they crystallize out of the solution when the syrup
cools. For those trekkers interested in trying this, make sure
that you have real, 100% genuine maple syrup. Heat it to a
temperature that is 25 degrees above the boiling point of water.
Remember that water only boils at 2120 F at sea level, this
temperature changes with changing altitude.
the colonists in the 18th century, maple sugar was much cheaper
and more available than the heavily taxed and refined cane sugar
from the West Indies. Even after the American Revolution when
taxation on sugar deceased, most Americans still preferred and
used maple sugar. Part of the reason for this was based on
morality. and sugar was produced with slave labor. In some of the
writings of Thomas Jefferson, the moral issue of cane sugar is
mention- ed. It would seem that the use of maple sugar would be
more correct than the use of cane sugar in trekking, and just as
convenient to use.
table sugar, is approximately 99% sucrose, a complex sugar that is
a combination of 1% fructose and 1% glucose molecule. Sucrose was
relatively unknown in Europe until about 9 centuries ago and was
an absolute luxury reserved for a fortunate few until 1700. The
principal source of sugar that we will deal with is the sugar cane
plant, a 20 foot tall member of the grass family with an unusually
high content of sucrose.
our other source of sugar is the sugar beet. Sugar was first
extracted from this plant in 1747 by a Russian chemist. However no
significant commercial use was made of his discovery until after
1840, and so is not something that we need to discuss.
processing of cane sugar is more involved than the product- ion of
honey and maple syrup /sugar, while honey and maple sap contain
water and sugars, the sugar cane extract contains a multitude of
com- pounds, carbohydrates, pigments, resins, and proteins that
not only interfere with the sweet taste but break down to
undesirable components when subjected to heat. The sugar extract
itself must go through four separate procedures to achieve its
final state. The cane stalks were first cut and pressed to obtain
the juice. This extract was then cleared of organic impurities by
heating it with lime and egg whites. Once the impurities were
removed, the remaining liquid was boiled down in a series of
shallow pans to remove the water. Once the majority of the water
was removed, it was poured into cone shaped molds. Each mold held
from 5-20 pounds of sugar concentrate. The cones were stored with
the pointed ends down and allowed to cool. This would allow the
sucrose to crystallize at the top and the non-sucrose portion,
known as molasses to run out a very small hole in the tip of the
cone. Once the molasses was removed the remaining sucrose crystals
were “washed” by packing wet clay over the large end of the
cones and allowing the moisture to percolate through the solid
block of crystals for 8-10 days. The remaining sugar was yellowish
in color. It was because of this color that the final sugar cones
were always wrapped in blue paper, dyed with indigo. Blue wrapping
has a tendency to make the yellow sugar look whiter. It is this
same blue paper that early colonists valued as a source of indigo
dye for clothing.
next food source that will be discussed is one common to most
trekkers and one that for obvious reasons is usually associated
with one or all of the above sweeteners - chocolate. Chocolate is
one of the many New World foods, unknown to Europeans prior to 400
first Europeans to see the cocoa bean were, in all likelihood, the
crew of Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502. It was on
this voyage that cocoa reached Europe for the first time. Both
words, chocolate and cocoa are derived from the Aztec language.
Cocoa is an 18th century corruption of the original word
first “factories” where cocoa beans were converted into a
paste fit for mixing with water were built in Spain in the year
1580. Within 70 years, despite serious Spanish efforts to keep the
drink a secret, chocolate had found its way into Italy, France,
and England. For the first two centuries after its introduction
into Europe, chocolate was used almost exclusively as a beverage.
principal reason for the lack of interest in chocolate as an
ingredient in candy and cakes during the 17th, 18th, and early
19th century was the actual texture of the chocolate and its
limited capacity to incorporate sugar. The chocolate of this time
period was coarse and crumbly and did not mix well with liquids or
sugars because of its high fat content. The bean is better than
50% fat by weight. Even when used as a beverage each person served
would be given a stick, called a moulinet, to whip the drink into
a froth in an attempt to disperse the fat content evenly
throughout the liquid.
in 1828 a man named Concrad van Houten, a chocolate merchant in
Amsterdam, Holland, developed a process to remove most of the fat
(butter) from the bean. His final product was cocoa powder, very
similar to our present day product of the same name. After 1828
“hot chocolate” has been a very different drink from the
chocolate beverage of the 1600 to 1800 time period. The early
chocolate drinks would have been very similar to a drink made with
today’s unsweetened bakers chocolate. With most of the cocoa
buffer intact, trying to dissolve high fat chocolate in hot water
or milk becomes a problem. Remember, don’t forget your
finally, I would like to discuss confectionery or candy. While
trekking or preparing for an adventure I’ve always thought that
carrying along some good type of candy would be a good idea. But
what type? Was anything actually available and if so, what? And
how prevalent was it in my area or to my personae? I found some
answers, but it was perhaps the most difficult area to research.
as candy did not exist prior to 1847. Marzipan, a paste of almonds
and line sugar was known by about 1300. Hard sugar candies had
become common place by 1600 and by 1650, pralines were in
existence. The documentation of candies seems to improve by the
beginning of the 18th century, but remember, sugar was a luxury
prior to 1700 and more common place thereafter. While candy as we
know it today did not appear until around 1850 (remember the
development of chocolate) enough commonly existed according to
18th century records to justify its use in trekking. The question
is what kind is historically correct. The following is a listing
the avail- able types of confections taken from an encyclopedia of
cooking that was published in 1751: whole fruit in transparent
syrup, marmalades, jellies and preserves, conserves (a dry
preserve made with fruit pulp), fruits covered with a hard sugar
shell, marzipan, hard candy (rock candy), and bonbons, which I am
sure are not what we know of today. After reviewing this list it
is now obvious that only ones that I might want to consider are
the jellies, preserves and hard candies. But at least I know these
things were commonplace during the 18th century.
those people who have made candy in the past, the use of a
thermometer is usually important. But as I continued my research I
discovered that during the 1700’s confectioners used a
more direct method of sampling the sugar syrups fit- ness for
different candies. Many of the recipes specifically talk about a
“cold water test”; removing a small portion of the heated
sugar and placing it in cold water and examining the results. So
even making the candy can be done in historic- ally correct
manner. As for flavorings, you can use a fruit juice that would
have been available either in your geographical area or that would
have been commonly imported.
I continue to collect information on foods of the 18th century I
continue to be struck with what appears to be quite a tremendous
diversity in the foods available during this time period, and
commonly avail- able. Although it would be of no value to the
trekker, in the same cookbook that gave me the previous list of
confections, there was a complete recipe for making of raspberry
ice cream! As a side light, Charles I, who reign- ed early in the
17th century commonly served ice cream to his guests.
we will discuss the use of coffee, tea, herbs, and spices
available to the early American colonists; what was common, what
was difficult to obtain, and whether or not it might be a valid
doing my research I tried very quickly to move into this area for
selfish reasons. I’m not much of a fan when it comes to tea
or hot chocolate, but I do enjoy a good cup of coffee. I knew that
tea and chocolate were commonly available in the colonies in the
18th century (remember the “Boston Tea Party”), but what about
coffee? And what about spices and herbs? Hopefully I can answer
some of these questions to your satisfaction.
comes from the leaves of a small evergreen bush that was
originally native to southeast Asia. The earliest record of
the commercial use of tea was in the 7th century where it was
cultivated for sale in China. Around 800AD the tea was formed in
cakes or, bricks, if you prefer, and boiled. Around 1300AD the tea
leaves were powdered and whipped into hot water to create the
beverage. By 1600 the steeping of individual sprigs of tea in hot
water was common along with the use of tea bricks and powdered
first samples of tea appeared in Europe around 1560, brought back
by early traders. By the mid 1600’s the Dutch and English had
established a regular sea trade with the Orient expressly for the
importation of tea.
the early 18th century tea began to replace ale at the English
breakfast table. In 1702, England imported close to 20,000 pounds
of tea and by 1801, England was importing some 20 million pounds.
It was sometime during the middle portion of the 18th century that
the English and some of our colonists were consuming tea in the
afternoon. Because the Chinese, as well as the Japanese, were so
secretive about the preparation of tea from raw leaves it
was well into the 19th century before either the Dutch or English
attempted to grow and process tea themselves in their Asian
colonies. Prior to the researching of this article I thought you
just picked off a leaf and dried it; I was wrong.
there are 4 completely different steps in making tea suitable for
use as a drink; withering, rolling, fermenting, and firing.
Withering means that the leaves are dried to a point where they
wilt and become structurally weak. Withering takes no more than 24
hours to complete. Rolling during the 18th century, was done by
hand and simply meant that the leaves were crushed, a few at a
time, to mix the chemical components of cells in the leaf
together. Rolling along with fermenting is what will eventually
give each of the various teas their color, flavor and astringency.
the rolling is complete and cellar contents are mixed, they are
allowed to “ferment” for 2-3 hours. This fermentation does not
involve any yeast or microbes but simply refers to the complete
mixing of all cellar contents and their enzymatic degradation. It
is the same process that causes browning or oxidation in fruit
when fruits are cut and exposed to air.
whole process is extremely complex and unless you happen to be a
biochemist it is also boring. Once the amount of fermentation that
is desired is completed, the leaves are “fired” or dried using
heat of about 200 degrees F until the leaves are left with a
moisture content of about 5%.
is the fermentation process, or lack of it, that produces some of
the distinct character of the various teas. Green tea is not
allowed to ferment at all. Its enzymes are destroyed by steam
before the leaves are rolled. Black tea is fully fermented for
3 hours. Oolong tea has a
fermentation time about half that of black tea.
coffee tree is indigenous to tropical Africa where it was first
used to make wine and used as a food source. Around 1000AD coffee
began to be used in a manner more familiar to use today, as a
beverage. Its first recorded use in this manner was by the Arabs.
By the 15th century the use of coffee was common place in Italy
and Spain, and by the 17th century the English had discovered it.
The first re- corded use of coffee in England as a beverage took
place in 1630. By 1652, coffee was firmly a part of English
order to overcome the Arabian monopoly on coffee, the English,
Dutch, and French smuggled the whole un-roasted beans to their
colonies in India, Java, and the West Indies. By the late 18th
century coffee growing was firmly established in South America,
but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that this area became
significant with respect to world trade.
there are two species of coffee tree, coffee arabica which was the
original source of the Arabian coffee and the type used in
colonial America and coffee canephor, also known as robusta
canephor. Robusta is a hardier plant that produces significantly
more fruit. It does however have a more neutral, less interesting
flavor. Also, the robusta coffee was unknown in the 18th century.
Certainly for anyone portraying an 18th century personae the use
of coffee is very acceptable. However to be perfectly correct you
need to make sure you have coffee that is 100% arabica. For me
this information was well worth the research effort, no- thing is
better than a good cup of coffee around the morning fire.
berry of the coffee tree contains 2 seeds or beans. In
order to be used the beans have to be roasted, which is just an-
other term for heating. Roasting of the bean can be done at home
or over an open fire during a trek by simply placing them in a dry
pan and heating them (use medium heat on your stove) while
constantly stirring them. The longer the beans are roasted the
darker they become, and the more strongly flavored the coffee
the beans can be used, they must obviously be broken down by a
grinding process. The finer the bean is ground the more readily
the particle will give up its flavor. The original way to brew
coffee is the way that I have always used. The ground beans are
boiled in water over an open fire and the liquid is decanted off.
It works very well since the grounds quickly settle to the bottom.
Although it may well be my imagination, coffee prepared in this
manner has always tasted better. I have always felt it is due to a
greater exposure of the surface areas of the coffee to the water.
I have also noticed that the best coffee is prepared by heating
the water to a boil and then removing it from the fire, prior to
the addition of the coffee. Once the water is re- moved and no
longer at a rolling boil, the coffee is added. With the pot
setting away from the fire, let it stand for 15 minutes prior to
the separation of the liquid and the grounds. If you allow the
water to continue boiling on the fire after the coffee has been
added, a number of problems are created. First, as the water is
boiling and the steam is escaping, so too is the coffee flavor.
Also the continued boiling allows the complex molecules of the
coffee to be broken down to harmful acids, significantly changing
finally a word about caffeine, which is present in both tea and
coffee in significant amounts. In normal amounts, form the
consumption of tea or coffee for breakfast, caffeine will improve
attention, concentration, coordination, and according to more
recent resources, endurance. Not only does that cup of morning
coffee taste good but it was probably important to the early
frontiersman in giving him an edge when in unfriendly territory.
If you are however worried about the amount of caffeine you are
consuming, for whatever reason, it is interesting to note that the
historically correct and more flavorful arabica beans have only
half as much caffeine as the newer hybrid, robusta.
going into a great deal of information about each of the herbs or
spices available, I thought that perhaps I would discuss some of
the more common herbs/spices that would have been in existence
during the 18th century. I will also briefly talk about when they
came into common use and where they are found. Remember, even
though they were available during the 18th century, depending on
your personae and your geographical area, you may not have had
access to the spice or the money required to obtain the item.
Also, early on, people actually prized certain herbs or spices for
their supposed medicinal qualities rather than their ability as a
of the more common herbs of this time were members of the mint
family. With the exception of the sweet basil, the members of this
family were all indigenous to the Mediterranean region. Basil was
indigenous to Africa. The members that comprise this family are
basil, marjoram, peppermint, rosemary, sage, and thyme. While
oregano is also a member of this family, its use in North America
was virtually nonexistent until after World War II, due to its
introduction by re- turning GIs. All of the others were available
to Europeans during the 18th century and all were used as far back
as the time of the Roman Empire. Of these, the three most commonly
used would have been peppermint, mostly for medicinal teas, sage
was used in England to make infusions prior to the introduction of
tea. An infusion in this context means the herb is allowed to
steep in water at room temperature instead of using boiling water.
While we normally think of sage as the main flavor ingredient of
sausage its association with pork was unknown prior to the mid
was also very common in the 18th century, however it wasn’t used
to flavor food, it was used as a medicine. The oil of thyme has
been as an ingredient of mouthwashes and disinfectants since the
early 16th century. The oil in thyme is very active in retarding
the growth of the staphylococcal and salmonella bacteria. Both of
the bacteria are responsible for food poisoning although each
causes a different type.
staphylococcal is one of the main skin contaminants and is
responsible for the infections most often associated with
superficial cuts, scratches, and abrasions, it might be helpful
and historically correct to carry a vial of thyme oil to treat
cuts and scratches.
group of herbs that were available in the 18th century as well as
the early 19th century are members of the carrot family. The
flavors of this group of herbs derives its variety of flavors not
from the green growth portion but from essential oils derived from
the seeds. Among these herbs are anise, caraway, coriander, cumin,
dill, and fennel. Each of these herbs have been used for thousands
of years. All of these herbs were used by the ancient Greeks and
seeds have been found in archeological excavations in Switzerland
dating around 8,000 years ago. Coriander has been used as an
herb/spice since before 5,000 B.C.. Coriander became very popular
in Europe, particularly France, in the 17th century. Shortly after
its arrival in France, it was widely used in England. Parsley was
used by the Greeks mainly for medicinal purposes. It was
introduced into England during the time of the Roman occupation,
over 2,000 years ago. Cumin is mentioned in both the Old and New
Test- aments and reference is made to it in early English writings
well before the 18th century; actually around the time of the
which belongs to the ginger family, along with cardamom and
turmeric, comprise another group of herbs, or spices which were
all available to the 18th century personae. The Chinese were using
ginger in the 6th century B.C.. It app- eared in the Mediterranean
area in the 1st century A.D., brought there by early traders. By
the 16th century it was widely cultivated throughout the West
Indies, brought there by the early Spanish employers. Turmeric
first appears in European writings in the Middle Ages, and was
used not only as an herb or spice, but also as a dye for clothing.
are also a number of herbs and spices that were well known in the
18th century but are not classified under any of the previous
families of plants and are not by any means related.
native to the West Indies and Central America was first discovered
during the Spanish Invasion of Mexico. It was in common use in
London by 1601.
is the dried inner bark of an evergreen tree in the laurel family.
It is native to Asia and was traded and used extensively as long
as 3,000 years ago. During the Middle Ages it was 2nd only to
black pepper in popularity. It is certainly an item that would
have been very common in 18th century America.
are the dried floral buds of a tropical evergreen tree, native to
the East Indies. It was first used by the Chinese in 300 B.C.. It
was used by the Egyptians in the 2nd century A.D. and was widely
used in Europe by the 8th century.
is the shelled seed of an evergreen, native to the Spice Islands
or the East Indies. Mace is the covering of nutmeg seed. Both are
used primarily to sweeten beverages and desserts and have been
used extensively since the 12th century. Both are therefore
historically correct for the 18th century trekker.
pepper is the dried fruit of the tropical pepper vine native to
India. This spice was also used as far back as the time of the
Roman Empire. The fruit is picked green, allowed to ferment in the
sun for a short period of time in order to develop a more pungent
flavor and then dried.
finally, there is vanilla. Native to Central America, it was
unknown to Europeans prior to 400 years ago. the pro- duct is
extracted from the fruit of a climbing vine that is a member of
the orchid family. While this spice was available in the 18th
century it would be the most difficult to obtain of all the spices
and herbs discussed to this point. There were many attempts to
grow the plant in other tropical areas early after its discovery
but all failed. Successful growth of the plant out- side Central
America did not occur until the mid 19th century. Because of
limited cultivation, large quantities of vanilla were never
available for export until as previously noted in the 19th
this simplistic overview has been beneficial to you. It has
changed some of the foods that I now carry and has certainly
enhanced the flavor of what I consume.
I would like to discuss some of the most basic 18th century foods,
grains. Because grains are concentrated source of protein,
carbohydrates, and fat, and are easily stored for long periods of
time, they have played a crucial role in human nutrition for tens
of thousands of years.
are convenient. They are an excellent source of protein and are
capable of long term, non-refrigerated storage. While no grains
are composed of complete proteins, various cultures have learned
through- out history to combine certain grains to form complete
sources of protein in the diet. Even those people living in the
18th century knew which foodstuffs could be combined to produce
the best diets. Remember; the body cannot store the amino acids of
an incomplete protein and wait to pick up the ones it needs later
in the day. The protein must be complete when ingested or it is
lost. While not important for a weekend trek, it could have been
the difference between life and death to the early pioneer or
grains that will be discussed are wheat, barley, rice, maize, rye,
and oats. The first four have been with us for thou- sands of
years. Rye and oats are relatively recent domestications. The
edible portion of the cereal plant, commonly called the grain or
kernel is technically a complete fruit. Three of the grains,
barley, oats, and rice bear fruits that are covered by small,
tough leaf like structures that fuse to form the husk. Wheat, rye,
and maize bear naked fruits and do not have to be husked prior to
Wheat is one of the oldest
of the cultivated food plants. Wheat has been found in tombs and
early writings as far back as 5500 B.C.. Compared to other
cereals, wheat is a very demanding crop. It is very susceptible to
disease, grows poorly in warm humid climates, grows best in cooler
climates, but it cannot be grown as far north as rye or oats. It
was brought to America in the 17th century but did not reach the
great plains until 1855.
was able to locate writings from early American history that wheat
was first grown in North America in 1602. The first wheat grown in
Virginia was in 1611.
never achieved the status in Virginia that tobacco did. Most
Virginia planters were loath to waste land on wheat since the
market value of tobacco was so much greater and wheat was so hard
to raise in Virginia.
depended less on tobacco than did Virginia, and more on wheat.
This was due to the cooler temperature and the avail- ability of
water power in the Chesapeake Bay region to mill it.
American colonies made their first substantial exports of wheat
and flour to England in 1767 when Britain abolished the import
duty on both these pro- ducts. In 1773, when grain crops failed
throughout Europe, England’s survival was, for at least 2 years,
dependent upon America’s wheat exports. It is interesting, in
light of this information that England chose to alienate her
American colonies to the point of rebellion.
grown throughout America during the 18th century, produced an
average yield often bushels of wheat per acre, according to Thomas
Jefferson. Today the average yield of one acre of wheat is close
to 100 bushels. By 1718 wheat was an important part of colonial
life, and its importance continued to grow throughout the 18th and
19th century. Its importance today can easily be seen by noting
the market increase in yield per acre that has been able to
achieve. Wheat as a component of a trekkers food supply would
obviously be correct.
ground up and mixed with water, the protein component of wheat
forms a complex, semi-solid structure called “gluten”. Gluten
is unique in that its structure is both plastic, and elastic. It
can stretch under pressure and yet resists pressure applied to it.
It is this unique property that allows us to make bread. It is
also why it is added to cornmeal to make cornbread. Without the
wheat the cornmeal has no structure or integrity. The gluten will
expand to accommodate the gases produced by yeast, and yet will
contain the gases without stretching to the point of bursting.
now that we have established the availability of wheat for the
18th century personae, I would like to discuss barley. Along with
wheat, barley is one of the oldest known grains. The remains of
coarsely ground combinations of wheat and barley have been found
in Stone Age archeological excavations. Barley has the advantage
of a relatively short growing season and is by nature a very hardy
plant, resisting both frost and drought. It is grown from the
arctic circle to the tropical plains of northern India. Barley was
the chief grain used by the ancient Hebrews, Romans, and Greeks to
make bread. Barley was the chief bread grain in Europe until the
16th century. Barley lost much of its importance in
bread making when leavened bread became common. Barley has a very
low “gluten” content and is relatively refractory to the
action of the yeast. Remember the advantages of both the elastic
and plastic properties of wheat gluten are what makes wheat so
exceptional for bread-making.
was introduced into the Americas in 1543 by the second Spanish
Governor of Colombia. The Pilgrims planted it in New England when
they arrived, but without much success. Early Pennsylvanians
proved more receptive to it and grew it in fair quantities. The
early Pennsylvanians didn’t use it for bread making however,
they combined it with their limestone filtered water and made an
excellent whiskey of it. This would ultimately lead to the Whiskey
Rebellion of the 18th century.
third grain to be discussed is rye. Rye seems to have originated
in central Asia around 4,000 B.C.. It moved slowly westward as a
contaminating weed in the cultivated fields of wheat and barley of
Nomadic tribes. Rye is a relative newcomer among human foods,
having attracted little attention as a food stuff prior to 1,000
B.C.. Early in its history it was heavily cultivated in England,
central and Northern Europe. Up until our present century it was
the predominant bread grain of northern Europe.
was first planted in the new world by the French in Nova Scotia in
1606. Samuel de Champlain was said to have personally grown it for
his household use 4 years later. Jesuit missionaries attempted to
introduce it to the Iroquois along with Christianity. While
appreciated by the Jesuits, the Indians continued to use maize.
Both wheat and rye were plant- ed in colonial America from
southern Virginia to New England. Rye flourished when wheat would
not. However a good deal of the rye found its way into the
manufacturing of whiskey.
New England, rye was often mixed with cornmeal to make a dark
Indian cornbread. Rye has enough gluten in it to closely compete
with wheat for the ability to turn out excellent bread. Rye has
from earliest times caused great plaques throughout the world
because of its susceptibility to ergot, which rarely infects other
cereal grains. Ergot is a parasite fungus that under the right
conditions will contaminate large areas of rye growth.
the actual chemical component of the fungus causes severe
constriction of blood vessels that can completely shut down the
circulation to certain areas of the body. It can cause gangrene of
the extremities, seizures, psychosis, and other neuralgic
disorders due to the decrease in blood flow of the central nervous
system. Since it decreases blood flow to female uterus, it leads
to miscarriages and in the 18th century was used to cause
therapeutic abortions. In most cases, however, it killed both
mother and child.
last major recorded epidemic of ergot poisoning took place in
1816, in France. The main reason it claimed so many lives, aside
from the limited knowledge of the chemistry of Ergotamine was the
failure of the ergot to actually alter the taste of the rye.
interesting sidelight to Ergotamine is that under the right
conditions, when ergot- amine is baked in bread, be- cause of the
heat and presence of certain carbohydrate and protein compounds it
can be converted to lysergic acid diethyl- amide or LSD. In all
probability it is the resultant effects of both the Ergotamine and
LSD which caused people throughout time to believe in demon
possession and witchcraft. The neuralgic effect of Ergotamine or
LSD certainly would lead one to assume you were possessed. And if
the population of the entire villages died along with their
animals I would assume witchcraft might be blamed, especially when
there was no evidence of any contagious process. In fact, during
the time in Salem Witch Trials in New England, the primary grain
under cultivation was rye.
today with our modern methods of farming, the contamination of rye
is no longer a problem. I consider this a great plus since I have
started to use quite a bit of rye flour while trekking. Biscuits
made of rye flour in my opinion are superb, even though they may
not be as light as one of wheat.
I would like to discuss oats. During my research on the subject of
grains I came across an interesting definition of oats from
a 17th century dictionary: “a grain which in England is
generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
This seems to be the general opinion of the English in respect to
this grain. Oats probably originated in the area now known as
Germany. They have a great reference for cooler climates.
Originally oats were merely contaminants of fields of wheat or
barley, where they were pulled up and burned. Eventually it was
discovered that oats made great food for livestock and so the
burning ceased. Oats are relatively recent with respect to cereal
grains, having been known for only 2,000 years.
far, during the 18th century, the Celts, Scots, and Welsh consumed
the greatest amount of oats as food. The rest of the world
generally used oats as feed for livestock. Oats have about 5 times
the fat content of wheat, and because of its high fat content it
has a tendency to become rancid. This would in the 18th century
generally decease its long term storage. Also oats have no gluten
producing proteins which means that no breads can be made from oat
is another grain that has been with us for quite some time, but
one we don’t generally talk about when discussing trek- king. It
certainly is applicable and was very available during the 18th
century. Alexander the Great introduced rice into Europe in 300
B.C.. South Carolina was the location of the first commercial
American planting in 1685. In 1731, South Carolina exported 42,000
barrels of rice to England. In 1765 three times that number of
barrels was shipped to England. During the American Revolution,
when the British occupied Charleston, South Carolina, they
harvested all the rice in the Carolinas and sent it to England,
along with the rice that should have been saved for seed.
of this, from around 1780 to 1787, when Thomas Jefferson provided
the Carolinas with new seed from France, rice was generally not
available in the United States, (there was some trade from
Canada). This could be important if your personae is in existence
during this time period. The presence of rice as a commercial crop
once again in the south helped this area recover faster from the
ravages of the American Revolution, than the North.
finally there is corn. Corn however, is probably not what you
think it is: it is a generic term and it depends on where you
live. In the United States, corn means maize. In England the term
means wheat and in Scotland corn is the same as oats. In northern
Germany, Korn is rye. In truth all corn means is “grain” and
each locality interprets it as standing for its own familiar
the 18th century colonies, as well as today, when we speak of
corn, we speak of maize. Maize is a relatively new grain when
compared to the rest of the grains we have discussed. It is a
grain unique to the Americas and while used for thousands of years
by the Native American Peoples, it wasn’t until the first voyage
of Columbus, in 1492, that Europeans learned of this grain. It is
definitely the single most valuable food plant contributed by the
New World to the Old.
by all historical accounts originated in the southern areas of
Mexico around 700 B.C.. By 4,000 B.C. it was in the area now known
as the southwestern United States. It reached the Ohio River
Valley a mere 2,000 years ago. Regardless of the time of its
arrival, as soon as it did, it became a staple food of the Indian
culture that acquired it.
saved the first white Virginians from starvation during their very
first winter in Jamestown, when the Indians gave Captain John
Smith some 500 bushels of corn, after the Virginians had exhausted
their food supply. It was also the food that allowed the New
England Plymouth colony to survive and prosper. First raised in
Europe in significant quantities around 1525 by the Spanish, it
finally reached England in 1562. Generally, throughout Europe and
England it was little used and considered quite inferior to other
more common grains.
the United States, from the 17th century through the present, corn
has always been highly prized. During the American Revolution, the
Continental Army virtually “lived on cornmeal”. It was a
useful item in any form to the early colonist or frontiersman.
Even today at least half of all the corn produced in the world
comes from the United States. While any of the previously
discussed grains would not be out of place during a historical
trek, corn, or maize certainly may have been more available.
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special thank you once again to William Gorby, his research and
writing ability is very much appreciated by those that follow his