- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005


By James E. McWilliams

Columbia University, $29.95, 400 pages


It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that a people planning a society must establish a food supply. This truism was not lost on the European immigrants who poured into America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bringing their own agricultural and food traditions, they came to a continent well able to supply their nutritional needs — but not always in ways they were used to. They weren’t accustomed to the climate either, so they had to adopt and adapt. The result is the many regional culinary traditions that today make up “American cooking.”

James E. McWilliams traces the pre-Revolutionary colonial foundations of this history. As the title and subtitle of his book suggest, he has a dual approach. The thesis expounded in “A Revolution in Eating” is that colonial Americans owned land and grew their own food to a much greater extent than the people of any other European colony or country, and that this directly shaped the republican philosophy that found expression in the Revolution.

The subtitle, “How the Quest for Food Shaped America,” suggests the adventurous and experimental nature of the colonists’ activities, and indeed, how these changed as they found ways to deal with unfamiliar crops, violent weather and perhaps most interestingly, agricultural and culinary information gleaned from the American Indians and African slaves who shared the continent with them.

Mr. McWilliams begins by drawing pictures of two very different British responses to life in the New World. In the West Indies, the British systematized sugar production by using slaves to do the work. By the mid-17th century slaves accounted for the planters’ biggest expense and their numbers vastly exceeded those of their British masters. How to feed them? Importing food would have increased costs; slaveowners found it cheaper to give slaves a little time and a little land on which they could grow their own provisions. Living in a climate similar to that of their African homeland, they planted familiar crops such as yams, plantain, vegetables, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and bananas, sometimes producing a surplus they could sell. Slaves also fished — for their masters as well as for themselves — using a combination of West African and American Indian techniques. Though ample evidence shows that West Indian slaves often suffered from malnutrition, nonetheless they ate familiar foods and they introduced these to America.

In contrast, 17th-century New England was populated by English merchants, tradesmen and farmers, whose motives for being in the New World were mainly religious rather than exploitative. John Winthrop and the colonists who accompanied him to Massachusetts in 1630 compared their venture to “a city upon a hill.” Their Puritan lives were to be exemplary, but they would still be English, so while they famously took American Indian advice about how to grow corn, they strived to grow familiar crops and to eat familiar food, adapting English recipes to American ingredients only when necessary.

Thus, except on the coast where fishing dominated, New Englanders developed a mixed agricultural economy growing crops and raising cattle and sheep. “More than any other region of colonial British America, New England mastered the art of feeding itself,” writes Mr. McWilliams. The region even exported food to other colonies and to Britain, and its prosperous self-sufficiency was reflected in the health and longevity of the population. In contrast, the West Indies’ sole cash crop — sugar — enriched a few, who gorged on rich imported foods and wine while the enslaved majority scraped by on subsistence agriculture. Both groups were doomed to early deaths.

The colonies that ranged themselves along America’s eastern seaboard fell between these two extremes. In the Chesapeake area, white immigrants always outnumbered slaves, and like their countrymen in New England, they strove to maintain the diet and lifestyle of England. But coming from the lesser aristocracy, they knew little of farming. Their aim was riches and they found them in a cash crop: tobacco. But tobacco requires constant care, so slaves had much less time to cultivate garden plots.

African foodways thus had only minor influence, less perhaps than those of the American Indians, whose hunting habits dovetailed with those of the English.

Further south, Carolina also depended on a cash crop: rice. The slaves who grew it were imported from the Caribbean islands, and they brought with them their custom of growing their own food. Rice does not require such constant attention as tobacco, so planters divided the work into set “tasks.” Essentially, slaves did piece work. When they finished their task, they were free to farm, hunt, or fish on their own account, providing not only their own food, but often a surplus to sell. Thus, even more than in the Caribbean, their foodways powerfully influenced the emerging cuisine of the region.

Tracing this history, Mr. McWilliams tells an intriguing tale, packed with detail and quotation from contemporary sources. He is careful to account for what different classes of people ate, giving a rich account of America’s varied foodways. In particular, by focusing on the contributions of American Indians and African slaves he counters Eurocentric histories of how America’s cooking developed. Aiming further, he shows that the colonists’ solutions to the problem of getting enough to eat led to both widespread ownership of land and to impressive rates of economic growth.

When the British government taxed many of the food items that had created this prosperity, it is no surprise that revolution followed. Linking the colonists’ pragmatism about food to their belief that making a living from the land was not just a necessity but also a virtue, Mr. McWilliams writes, “The colonists formulated a political theory that blended material acquisition and community interests into a single ideological package… . Colonists would go on to recast American culture according to a new set of values, a set of values that would come to define American cuisine well into the nineteenth century and, perhaps, beyond.”

So far, so good. But Mr. McWilliams pushes beyond the connection between self-sufficiency and self-determination to assert that Americans’ food “directly shaped” their political ideology. “Americans … wanted their food to be — like their newly articulated political principles — honest, virtuous, simple, free from artifice, and, in a way, robust.” Citing the array of early 19th-century recipes for Independence Cake, Federal Cake and other treats celebrating the new United States as evidence, he notes only a thoroughly English habit of making fruit cakes for holiday occasions: In these cakes Americans were following an old custom, doing nothing more than giving new names to old recipes.

Again in noting the rejection of French cooking, Mr. McWilliams cites attacks on both Presidents Jefferson and Van Buren for their effete affection for French dishes. Much more significant than this prejudice, the French had a tradition of professional cooking that was impossible in America, and also an aristocracy whose habits exerted a powerful effect on other social classes. By ignoring such facts, Mr. McWilliams avoids a potentially interesting comparison: If Americans asserted the simplicity of their food as an expression of republican values after the Revolution, why, during the same years and after their own republican Revolution, did the French assert and develop the primacy of the haute cuisine as a symbol of France?

The argument that American cooking shares the country’s political principles is a loose generalization that contributes little to our understanding of culinary and cultural history. And this is not the only occasion that Mr. McWilliams’ enthusiasm for his thesis runs away with him. In describing the development of sugar plantations in the 16th and early 17th centuries, he several times refers to the European demand for sugar in tea and coffee. But sugar was a wildly profitable sought-after commodity in England and the staple of Caribbean agriculture, way before tea or coffee arrived in London in the mid 1650s. Why? It was used as a medicine, as a spice, and most significantly, in preserving fruits — an art that was the latest culinary fashion in 16th- and 17th-century Britain. Similar lackadaisical lapses include a description of New England, where Mr. McWilliams imagines “seasonal spring clover carpeted the meadows in early March.” Snow is the only thing that carpets New England in early March, even in these days of global warming. Writing of recipes in the 18th century English cookbooks that Americans also read, he lists “Scotch scallops” and “fried foals in shrimp sauce.” For scallops read “collops” — a famous Scottish beef dish — and for foals read “soals” an 18th century spelling of “soles,” which taste delicious with shrimp sauce. Foals, of course, were never eaten in England.

Clearly, Mr. McWilliams has misread the long ‘s’ of 18th-century typography. Such lapses not only mislead, they sometimes bar the way to interesting or significant topics. Nonetheless, “A Revolution in Eating” gives its readers much to chew over, and whets the appetite for further work on the development of American cooking — most obviously for the history of food in the West and how it contributed to the array of dishes and cooking styles that today we typify as American.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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