Eating and drinking during the Revolutionary War

rev3Keep to the facts, Mam, they’re more interesting.

Before we launch into the food and rations of Colonial America, let’s make sure we know a few important facts about Independence Day. July 4, 1776 marks the anniversary of the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. That means that this year—2017—marks America’s 241st birthday. Also, the first Independence Day wasn’t celebrated on the 4th of July, but rather four days later, on July 8, 1776 in Philadelphia.

History tells us 56 people signed the Declaration of Independence and that Thomas Jefferson wrote most of it, but some people continue to argue over that.

The White House did not actually celebrate Independence Day until 1804.

The Declaration of Independence has five parts: The Preamble, Statement of Human Rights, Charges Against Human Rights, Charges Against the King and Parliament and the Statement of Separation and Signatures.

July 4 was declared a national holiday in 1870, nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence was written.

From a former exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art we learn:

“The people of the ‘new’ United States of America were proud of their young republic. They enthusiastically displayed symbols of patriotism in their homes and on public buildings, replicas of the nation’s official seal, the bald eagle and images of famous patriots.

“Portraits were emblazoned on porcelain dinnerware and on silver serve ware…”

Rev-war-cookingBut what of the brave men and women who fought for our freedom from England? What rations were our troops afforded while fighting the British? A Smithsonian American History blog on the Internet tells us this:

The Massachusetts Provincial Council set the daily ration for its troops in Boston as…

  • One pound of bread
  • Half a pound of beef and half a pound of pork, and one day a week they were given one pound and a quarter of salt fish instead of the day’s ration of meat
  • One pint of milk, or if milk cannot be had, one gill (half a cup) of rice
  • One quart of good spruce or malt beer
  • One gill of peas or beans
  • Six ounces of good butter per week
  • One pound of soap for six men per week
  • Half pint of vinegar per week per man

In time, rations changed due to problems with transportation. According to “The Private Soldier Under Washington,” by Charles Knowles Bolton, the same rations above were approved by Congress on November 4, 1775, but with “cider” included in the beverage rations.

The Revolutionary soldiers, when in camp, were billeted in tents of six with each taking turns cooking or simply cooking for themselves. A Commissary General of Purchases was appointed by the Continental Congress to arrange for purchase and transportation of the rations.

slicing and dicingAnd what of the people at home? What did they eat? From the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, we learn:

  • Eighteenth-century cooks served only food that was in season. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not available year ‘round. Colonial Virginians could preserve some foods for the long term, typically by smoking or salting. Short-term preservation was impossible without refrigeration.
  • Those wanting chicken for dinner caught the bird early in morning, killed it, plucked it, cleaned it and cooked it. While the Colonists ate the leftovers at supper and breakfast before they could spoil, the English nobility kept kitchen staffs filled with specialists. King George II, it was written, employed 200 cooks at one time.
  • Cooking and baking required the ability to use a wood fire, gauging and using wood heat accurately and carefully.
  • Cooks approached seasoning differently than we do today. Colonial fare offered “too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener.” Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg liberally. Raw fruits and vegetables were considered unappetizing. So the kitchen help usually cooked them. Sweet drinks prevailed, too. Dry wines were not popular. Madeira, a sweet wine fortified with brandy, was. Cocktails didn’t exist, but alcohol-rich punches did.
  • The main meal, dinner, was served midafternoon. Formal meals had two or three courses. Meat dishes often came to the table with the animal’s head and feet attached. The upper class ate little bread. Instead, they might use a roll to maneuver food on a plate and sop up gravy and sauce.
  • Aspiring cooks for the upper class in America or England learned looked to France for “elegant meals.” French food, however, had a limited but enthusiastic following in the nobility. Menus relied heavily on sauces and dishes requiring multiple steps in preparation. In Virginia, a governor might have a European-trained head cook. The gentry probably didn’t, although they might encourage their cooks to learn European techniques.
  • People lower in society liked simple food. That explains why the period’s most popular cookbook was Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy for Housewives and Maids, published in 1745
1898:  Full-length group portrait of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, seated in front of a staircase at a home in New York City.  (Photo by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images)

1898: Full-length group portrait of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, seated in front of a staircase at a home in New York City. (Photo by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images)

Today, the sacrifices of our past patriots are honored by a linage-based service organization called The Daughters of the American Revolution. DAR members come from all backgrounds and interests and all have an ancestor (a patriot) that contributed in securing our independence as a nation.

The Daughters serve in countless volunteer capacities with myriad endeavors including historic preservation, monument restoration, education and patriotism. The first DAR chapter was organized in October 11, 1890. Its motto is God, Home and Country. Anyone 18 years or older is welcome to join after a thorough review at the chapter level. There are more than 190,000 members who would be happy to help you research your patriot if you feel you qualify.