Life on the Frontier by William Gorby
18th Century Foods
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.
There 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.
With all that aside, I would like to start with sugars, chocolate, and confectionary. 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.
Honey was widely used in Europe from the earliest record- ed 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.
Honey 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.
Another 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.
Prior to having access to European trade goods, concentrating the sap to syrup or sugar was a considerable problem. Attempts to boil the sap usingclay 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.
Though 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% malice 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.
Maple 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.
For 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.
Ordinary 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.
Today, 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.
The 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.
The 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 years ago.
The first Europeans to see the cocoa bean were, in all likelihood, the crew of Columbus’sPAGE 30
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 “cacao”.
The 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.
The 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.
Finally 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 moulinet.
And 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.
Chocolate 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.
For 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. As 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. Now 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 trekking item. While doing my research I tried very quickly to move into this area for selfish reasons. I’m PAGE 31
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.
Tea 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 tea.
The first samples of tea app- eared 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. During 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.
Actually 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.
Once 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. This 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%.
It 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.
The 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 society.
In 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.
Today 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 robust 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.
Each 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 becomes.
Before 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 bro- ken down to harmful acids, significantly changing the flavor.
And 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.
Without 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 flavor enhancer.
Some 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.
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 returning 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 and thyme.
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 19th century.
Thyme 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.
Since 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.
Another group of herbs that were available in the 18th century as well as the early 19th century are members of thecarrot 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 Romans.
Caraway 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 Norman Invasion.
Ginger, 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 explorers. 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.
There 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.
Allspice, 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.
Cinnamon, 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.
Cloves 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.
Nutmeg 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.
Black 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.
And 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 century.
Hopefully 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.
Now 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.
Grains 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 frontiersman.
The 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 milling.
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.
I 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. Wheat 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. Maryland 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.
The 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.
Wheat 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.
When 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.
And 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.
Barley 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.
The 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.
Rye 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.
In 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.
Ergotamine, 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.
The 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.
One 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 neurological 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.
Fortunately, 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.
Next, I would like to discussoats. 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.
By 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 flour.
Rice 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 occupiedCharleston, 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.
Because 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.
And 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 grain.
In 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.
Maize, 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.
Maize 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.
In 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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Note: Mr. 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 article on 18th century foods, first published in "On The Trail" magazine in 1996. We would like to thank him for letting us give our friends and customers some interesting facts.