"An acceptable refreshment": the meaning of food and drink in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860.
The anecdote goes against conventional wisdom on the relation of North Americans to their food. "There is a familiar and too much despised branch of civilization, of which the population of this country is singularly and unhappily ignorant: that of cookery," scolded James Fenimore Cooper in the 1830s. He was not the first, but probably one of the most forceful in a long line of critics of American eating habits in the nineteenth century. He upbraided
"Americans [as] the grossest feeders of any civilized nation known. As a nation, their food is heavy, coarse, ill prepared and indigestible ... The predominance of grease in the American kitchen, coupled with the habits of hasty eating and of constant expectoration, are the causes of the diseases of the stomach so common in America ... Vegetable diet is almost converted into an injury in America, from an ignorance of the best mode of preparation, while even animal food is much abased, and loses half its nutriment." (2)
Marks Barker's remembrance of his culinary delight certainly counters the worldly Cooper's haughty description of early nineteenth-century foodways; it may even invalidate the writer's diatribe. First, in his quiet way Barker suggests that Americans of modest origins had the wherewithal to appreciate a good meal and that they possessed a vocabulary to articulate their culinary judgment. Second, he shows that they were perfectly capable of spending an extended period of time at the table and take pleasure in the cookery and the company. In other words, he provides good evidence that Americans knew how to eat together.
The meal in Ancram was no trivial matter for its protagonist. So we are well advised to take it seriously, too. Yet historians of North America have by and large left unexplored the role and meaning of commensality, of eating and drinking together. This is not to say that foods and meals are altogether overlooked in historical accounts. Rather, they seem often used as illustrations of other developments. The scrutiny of table manners allowed Richard Bushman to describe refined eating as the social norm by the antebellum years. Studies that emphasize social discontinuity tend to point up the contested nature of such models of conduct and canons of taste in the developing United States; they highlight the diversity of values and behavior that defined groups of different standing. (3) When it comes to trends in consumption patterns in colonial and early-republican North America, historian Lorena Walsh notes the presence of an increasing number of household amenities and the development of a more varied diet before the 1830s. Efforts required to improve well-being fell disproportionally on manual workers who now put in longer days of work, and women who performed more household tasks and participated more forcefully in labor markets. As a result, the distribution of the gains in the conquest of "a comfortable subsistence" increased social inequality. Information culled from probate inventories and account books supports this conclusion. However, Walsh remarks that quantitative sources cannot capture the significance of the table in people's experience. That is the reason why she calls for an exploration of the culture of nourishment in American society through the mid-nineteenth century. (4) Marks Barker's story provides a window onto the meaning of food and meals in the countryside.
The focus of this inquiry is on the Hudson Valley because lives in the nineteenth century were lived locally. Diaries, letters, newspaper articles and personal memoirs as well as accounting ledgers provide clues to the ways in which food and meals contributed to the shaping of everyday life. While insights emerge from small-scale evidence, they resonate across other places and cultures. The retrieval of foodways helps make sense of social organization and interaction, and they inform on relations to nature and the productive environment. How, then, did the residents of the Hudson Valley perceive nourishment? What were their strategies of provisioning? What does the circulation of foods tell about the conventions that regulated the relations between neighbors and the role of commerce in their lives? What do food repertoires tell about social stratification and the ways in which society is held together? While the findings support the claim that rural society in the northern states around 1800 lived according to a distinct, identifiable set of values even while participating in interregional commerce, (5) they also draw attention to the persistence of certain general functions that endow meals with special significance: their contribution to the inculcation and assertion of social norms.
Foodways: Literary Fiction and Social Inequality
What, then, was the place of food in the mental world of Hudson Valley residents? The region's cornucopia of legends makes it tempting to begin by mining this tradition for the roles of food in stories with local roots. Compare Old World to Hudson Valley tales: stories peddled in early modern Europe are, as historians Eugen Weber and Robert Darnton have argued, only slightly hyperbolic renderings of reality. The lack of sustenance was all too real in the European countryside. Parents abandoned their children; hungry wolves fed on a starved and roving population; brutality was rampant, cannibalism both a possibility and a threat. The dreadful absence of real nourishment in Europe and the overpowering presence of hunger in popular tales contrast with the insignificance of food in Hudson Valley lore. Eating and drinking form no trope in Judith Richardson's survey of the region's haunting tales, and while the sublime beauty of the land offers an apt home for ideas of religious and political liberty, a fertile ground for their defense in war and their peaceful advance in the new republic, foodstuffs never interfere with the purpose and the plots laid out in the prototypical Legends and Poetry of the Hudson (1868). No one seems to go hungry in Washington Irving's stories where crops and comfort are within the reach of most everybody: old Baltus Van Tassel "piqued himself upon the hearty abundance, rather than the style in which he lived." (6)
The oral tradition of the fireside and the tavern bench, as reported in James Pickney's Reminiscences of Catskill (1868), confirms the impression of nature's multiplier effect in North America. Upon his retirement from the sea, Pickney recalled in the 1860s, Captain Britton had become a regular fixture in the inns of Catskill where he spun some remarkable yarn. One favorite story was about a "voyage to Ireland with a cargo of potatoes, and how, having accidentally left one in each bag, he found, on his return voyage, his vessel (which he supposed to be only in ballast) fast settling in the water, and how, upon taking up the hatches to look for the leak, he discovered that the seed of potatoes had propagated, each its bag full, so that he returned with a larger cargo of the esculent than he set out with." As a matter of fact, the image of profusion pretty much matched the average experience of European immigrants in the nineteenth century. Most escaped severe deprivation, and they found a rich diet in North America that easily reconciled them, as Richard Stott has shown for New York City, with the new environment. The abundance of meat and bread turned up as major arguments in immigrants' letters aimed at convincing relatives and friends to come to the United States. (7)
There was, however, a caveat. Scottish itinerant weaver William Thomson, who criss-crossed the Hudson Valley in the early 1840s, warned that "emigrants of the handicraft class come crowding to manufacturing towns and well-known districts, where they frequently cannot get work until their means are expended; besides, they glut the labour market when other places are in want of them: instead of which, if they would just shut their eyes, and walk twenty miles straight into any ordinary well-settled district, they would find profitable employment in this and many other ways." The New World was no land of milk and honey where roasted skylarks would fly into the open mouths of pot-bellied loafers stretched out in the shadow of lush, blossoming trees standing in the midst of fertile, green pastures and golden corn fields. An income from work and, better yet, some property were a necessary condition to participate in its advantages. (8)
In addition to the traditional poor of which the United States had its share--the old, the orphan and the invalid, Thomson's observation suggests two other sets of circumstances that resulted in dire straits and poor diets. Just as everywhere, joblessness was largely external, temporary, due to business cycles, and often beyond individual control. Industrial growth in the Hudson Valley generated a category of people whose only resource was their labor, and many among them lived only one economic downturn away from joining poor relief roles. Catskill papermaker Abner Austin candidly noted in 1821 that "our workmen are all poor," and seven years later physician Alexander Coventry observed that mill workers in Columbiaville near Hudson "get a bare subsistence, no instance having yet occurred of a single individual having acquired an independence." So when economic crises hit, hunger followed. Reliance on charity, the degree zero of provisioning, accompanied the descent into destitution. "The extent of suffering and wretchedness" and the number of those "destitute of food" were so alarming in 1817 when cold climate and clogged commerce coincided in a calamitous combination, that Hudson citizens set up the distribution of a "Soup for the Poor." About twenty years later on the threshold of another series of economic and meteorological predicaments, the Olmsteds of Spencertown were "learning to live without eating, hav[ing] been one week without flour." They had used up their "scanty stores," to borrow an expression found in the February 11, 1837, issue of the Catskill Messenger, put-up reserves that allowed "families of slender means who depend exclusively upon their daily labor for sustenance" to survive when hardship knocked and revenues failed to turn up. At that desperate point, dependence on neighbors' largesse became an imperative for survival. (9)
The second mode of living on limited resources was more idiosyncratic. It, too, implied a degree of dependence on the kindness of neighbors. Rip Van Winkle epitomizes the type. His "insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor" and concomitant proclivity to lounge about, caused "his patrimonial estate [to be] the worst conditioned in the neighborhood." Rip much preferred to smoke in the shade rather than to exert himself in his dwindling corn and potato patch. Whatever the historian's approach to the relation between literary fiction and reality (not to mention ideas about plotting our own narratives), archives conceal not only charming, picturesque individuals like Washington Irving's anti-hero but picaresque rogues whose tricks can sustain comparison with the mischief of Europe's legendary Till Eulenspiegel. (10)
Matthew Graves of Catskill fits the portrait well. He was poor, averse to work, but not disinclined to lend a hand now and then (neither was Rip!). Living on the fringes of the community, the Graves family was obviously tolerated by their neighbors. This social acceptance owed much to Matthew's wife, a "very industrious and tidy woman." Like many homemakers struggling with the difficulties to make ends meet, she relied on a combination of domestic skills and business acumen to improve family revenues. She peddled ginger bread, molasses candy and spruce beer at militia trainings. (This almost timeless way of coping prompts the thought that an inclination toward snacking between meals helped an economy of expediency to emerge in the early nineteenth century, even in the countryside). Wittiness compensated Matthew Graves for the practical skills he affected to lack. According to a contemporary chronicler, Graves occasionally
"became confused in his ideas of meum and teum. One day Mr. Apollos Cooke handed him a fine turkey, and directed him to take it home and tell the folks to cook it for dinner. At the usual dinner hour, Mr. Cooke went home, but no turkey had been left, and consequently none had been roasted. He went in search of Mat. to learn the cause of the mistake, when that vagabond averred that he had obeyed orders literally by taking the turkey home, and that he knew it was properly cooked, for Mrs. Graves and himself had just made a most excellent meal of it." (11)
This roundabout route to locate food in discourse and opinion at the intersection of fiction and historical authenticity suggests the degree to which inequality characterized access to foodstuffs in the Hudson Valley. The founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, coined the term "decency" to identify "not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without." Thus, a social norm informed expectations about the proper meal, and midday dinner served as the benchmark because it included meat. An immigrant guidebook described the "common doings" of American farmers as pork and cornbread accompanied by tea or coffee. There were instances of workers' pay in Hudson Valley manufactures that included an owner-sponsored meal of bread, meat and coffee. In the privacy of her home, Dorothy Olmsted of Spencertown, apprehending a winter without help from neighbors and noting the "prospect of starvation ... and the old fashioned horrors" associated with it in 1835, considered beef and pork an indispensable ingredient in her family's customary foodways. Such standard menus aimed at the reproduction of the farm or industrial workforce. They expressed and satisfied the social definition of decency. They formed the most common denominator, the customary ration that included everything to fill stomachs but little to satisfy fancy. In some ways, they corresponded to the local minimum fare. When it was beyond people's reach, a feeling of want set in. Hunger was a social as much as a biological phenomenon. (12)
Food repertoires in the Hudson Valley were larger than the bottom line of alimentary supply. Merchant ledgers and account books document the range of food purchases. Exotic goods like sugar and molasses--and the beverage distilled from them--entered the region, of course, and so did rice from the South; the farm economy required salt for the preservation of food, the well-being of animals and the seasoning of the table. Exotic spices from ginger to nutmeg and pepper entered the region. The Hudson River imparted a predilection for shad and sturgeon, the catching and consumption of which lasted from May through August. Imports of cod and mackerel satisfied the taste for fish during the rest of the year. The local economy supplied much of the rest: wheat, buckwheat, corn, rye, dairy, vegetables from beans to turnips, fruit from apples to blueberries and plums, and different sorts of meat. The routine meal plan in the Hudson Valley included a breakfast of sugared tea, bread and butter, a mid-day dinner of boiled pork--sometimes beef--and vegetables, and a supper of soup, milk and cheese. Fish, fresh and salted and carted up the hills, regularly added variety; in Catskill, Abner Austin's papermill workers bought cod while widow Harriet Van Orden spent ten percent of her food budget on fish in 1834. And last but not least, residents did not hesitate to buy the occasional snack on the run. (13)
Social differences determined consumption patterns. If everyone consumed bread, its quality and attributes varied. Rye bread accompanied cheese and butter in a "plain supper" offered at a log cabin to painter Thomas Cole; he had lost his way in the Catskills where rye was, according to John Burroughs, a normal part of a farm family's diet in the 1840s. The Dubois women baked their bread made of rye and corn flour regularly, at least twice a week, but "wheat bread" was an exceptional delicacy. Sojourner Truth's Narrative suggests that fresh rye bread was something of a treat for slaves, especially when baked with apples gleaned from their owner's orchard. In the middle of the social hierarchy, merchant's widow Harriet Van Orden bought white bread and occasionally crackers from the baker. (14)
The combination of "crackers and cheese" was on the way of becoming, according to an 1832 issue of the Catskill Messenger, "popular as well as fashionable." A local inventor had devised a machine capable of baking 200 units per minute. This mechanical progress and its consequences on alimentary habits alerts us to the uses of foods. Take buckwheat. It ranks rather low in the hierarchy of flours because it cannot be transformed into bread (it will not rise with yeast or leaven, and the result is a hard lump). However, it can be turned into a treat, and in December 1833 twenty-one-year old Vincent Morgan Townsend of Dutchess County especially "stopped at the mill and got a grist of buckwheat. Memo," he noted to express his unmistakable predilection, "hope that our folks will have buckwheat pancakes every morning all winter." (He got pancakes and beef liver for breakfast on Sunday, January 12, 1834). (15)
The reassertion of popular taste notwithstanding, the social ladder exerted its influence on the esteem in which consumers generally held meat. Dark foods were for robust stomachs, white foods suited the more refined people. In spite of the vast numbers of sheep, the market for lamb was with artisans and industrial workers; the artisans at the Bristol Glass Factory in Ulster County bought a great deal of mutton as it was relatively cheap in the late 1810s, and in time the expansion of manufactures expanded the circle of its consumers. Pork was common, beef and veal were more elevated, and poultry--to which Marks Barker was treated and Matthew Graves helped himself--was clearly exceptional. Turkey and other fowl marked special occasions in the families of miller William Youngs in 1811 and of farmer Townsend in 1834. Celebrations from birthdays to the Fourth of July warranted the preparation of geese in the Dubois household in the 1830s and 1840s. The Campbells, a merchant family, consumed "fine fat turkeys" on anniversaries and other joyful commemorations. "Yesterday it was eleven years since we moved to Schodack," Sarah Mynderse Campbell noted on February 24, 1827. "We had a fine large turkey for dinner to cellebrate the day of joy that we have landed at Schodack, this happy place." For her husband's birthday, she prepared a "fine fat turkey and good mince pie." All this evidence on eating and foods demonstrates their social determination since they replicated faultlines of income and, maybe to a somewhat lesser extent (there are farmers rich and poor), occupation. Tables exposed the pecking order in the Hudson Valley. (16)
Provisioning and the Making of the Neighborhood
Provisions were a mix of home-produced and market-bought goods, and procurement consequently took a variety of forms. Trade in locally-produced or -transformed goods did matter, of course: bakers and meat cutters plied their businesses, notably in river towns (John Ashley's shop in Catskill carried a huge sign proclaiming "May our Country Never Want for Bread"), and itinerant butchers went from farm to farm to kill animals. Peddlers carried cakes, candies, clams and smoked shad into the countryside. But overall, provisioning bore the mark of what Edward McGraw, who recalled his childhood in New Windsor, Orange County, designated as an "economy of expenditures." The imperative prompted families to produce for themselves as much as they could in order to keep cash expenses to a minimum, a precept to which the Burroughs family on the western slopes of the Catskills strictly adhered in mid-century. "To do everything within his own family" was, according to Crevecoeur, the "philosopher's stone" of rural populations in the early United States. Its success was predicated on people's capacity to produce, and that meant that they needed access to a garden. (17)
The assertion of historian Richard Cummings notwithstanding, kitchen plots counted a great deal for Hudson Valley residents. They so much appreciated fruit and vegetables on their tables that the presence of a garden served as a sales argument for houses. The families of farmers, artisans, workers, merchants and members of the liberal professions, all seemed to cultivate a piece of land to diversify their diet. Women and men shared garden work just as they did in New England. The time spent preparing the soil, hoeing, weeding, picking and digging plants in their gardens provided foodstuffs--and saved money. Physician Alexander Coventry owned a garden and cared about his apple trees near the city of Hudson. Catskill lawyer John V. D. S. Scott's passion was horticulture, and his garden "was celebrated for the variety and quality of its fruit and vegetables,... at once the admiration of his neighbors, and the temptation of juvenile malefactors." This represented something of a pattern: recurrent episodes of "robbing orchards" and stealing vegetables preoccupied the inhabitants of Kinderhook, too. (18)
The advantages of a rural residence for people employed in mechanical occupations appeared very clearly to the peripatetic and perspicacious William Thomson in 1841; he came upon several weavers who lived comfortably on a few acres of land and "owned a cow or two, a pig, some chickens, lots of Indian corn, and potatoes." The observation obtained for artisans in Austerlitz in the 1820s and, in the 1840s, for factory hand George Bower who raised cabbage, celery, lettuce, onions, potatoes, spinach and squash in Dutchess County. Access to a garden proved an incentive in employment contracts of laborers and workers. However, kitchen plots belonging to people not involved in agriculture confused census marshals in 1850. Their categories had no place for families who owned less than two improved acres on which they pastured a cow whose milk they churned into butter, held some pigs, harvested orchard and farm produce as well as honey, and cut hay to sell. Whatever the problems of fitting official nomenclatures, to farmers just as to these inhabitants who seemed to straddle agriculture and manufacture, gardens were a means to achieve food security. (19)
Gardens were both chance and chore. On the one hand, their myriad products graced tables and enriched diets. On the other hand, their cultivation required labor and put pressure on households to get the work done. The trade-off was consumed time versus saved money. Papermaker Abner Austin recognized both factors: he cultivated "with his own hands ... a very large garden, daily to provide for a family averaging over 20 souls." Similarly, opportunity and constraint characterized the effect of local foodstuffs on relations among Hudson Valley residents. Garden produce and farm products contributed to the existence of a barter economy. In some ways, their presence--associated with the strong incentive to avoid dealings in cash--made barter possible and actually compelling. Examples abound. A pig delivered in April 1787 paid for shoes finished in January; butter, cheese and eggs were bartered for leather and handkerchiefs; wheat and rye flour remunerated farm work while garden produce, dairy products and meat made up more than one third of the payments received by Catskill blacksmith Samuel Fowks between 1817 and 1822. (20)
The locale of such swapping was circumscribed, but the pattern was evident elsewhere in North America. Foods circulated as a medium of exchange between neighbors. Strangers were excluded from the ongoing back-and-forth of goods and services because there was nothing transient, discrete and anonymous about such deals. Single acts never concluded an exchange operation. Rather, they were links in a series of transactions that created a sense of obligation between the involved parties. Foods thus assumed a special kind of value because they were among a limited number of tools to translate geographic proximity into concrete, lasting relations. Arguably (to take an idea from anthropologist Marcel Mauss) garden and agricultural work infused foods with personal attributes that enhanced and transcended their immediate material utility. This spiritual value-added did, however, call for some kind of restitution, which explains the reason why they could signify the equivalence of products and services. Foods assumed currency in local transactions, and their flow constructed and integrated neighborhoods. In short, food swapping helped constitute a distinct way of life, a sense of belonging, a moral community. (21)
Mealtime: Inculcation and Assertion of Social Norms
Tables, just as gardens, reflected economic means and public standing. They responded to social conventions and expectations. Meals at the end of the year celebrated abundance, a way to forget, at least temporarily, the hold of nature on subsistence. Then such variety and amounts of foods covered tables that the normal nomenclature of mealtimes no longer applied. "I have just finished my meal," John Olmsted's fiancee Lucinda Davenport wrote on December 30, 1834. "I know not whether to call it dinner, supper or tea. It is late enough for the latter, but I have had no dinner. It consisted of bread and butter, buckwheat cakes, beefsteak mince-pie, apple-pie made of pumpkin, cheese--tea--salt--pepper etc." Traditional rules of hospitality mandated that visitors (like Marks Barker) and lost hikers (like Thomas Cole) should receive food and drink, and so the rather numerous guests of the Dubois household, from Martha Bogardus to the Reverend Murdock, were always treated to tea and pie. But eating together had other purposes, too. (22)
Foodstuffs lubricated social relationships. If they were one lever to create and maintain a sense of community, then work was the other. The link between the two activities appeared so often and so clearly that it is tempting to consider them, around 1800, as the two active principles of life in the countryside. Ordinary circumstances showed the close connection. Indeed, some productive tasks necessitated the collaboration of many hands, and their organization involved beverages--and sometimes food--just as their completion entailed a shared meal. Harvesting, mowing, ploughing sometimes, and house-raising always, exceeded the production capacity of households. All gave rise to so-called bees, during which neighbors pooled their forces to get things done. "Having finished his harvest," William Coventry "gave all hands a pretty good supper" in 1786. Fifty years later, a prosperous Dutchess County farmer treated the assembled working crew with "a piece of boiled pork, a piece of cold beef, cold mush (very good), flour bread, green Indian corn (smoking hot), cucumbers, pumpkin pie, silver spoons, clean knives and forks, water in clean tumblers, and a cup of tea after." Note that quantity and quality went together, profusion and delicacy were hardly antagonistic in these meals that closed the cycle of collective agricultural efforts. The sumptuary character of the occasion was in line with the physical exertions that preceded it. The social, integrative intent endowed the meal's metabolic aspects with some larger meaning. Precisely at the moment when this temporary society brought together by material need was about to split up, the banquet showed that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. (23)
The cheerful atmosphere of such feasts should not induce the assumption that it was the result of a free choice. Contrary to its appearance, there was nothing voluntary about the connection between work and food. It was a customary part of life in the countryside. The final meal was the culminating ceremony in a standard scenario. As such, it lent itself to ritualisations through which the community represented itself to itself--and to outsiders. Spinning bees brought together women who, after completing their task, were "having their dinner and supper (...), helping the lady of the house in sewing perhaps, and after tea, have a dance. Generally the young men meet there, and draw wood or something to help the farmer, after which they go home, change their dress, and return and spend the evening dancing and drinking cider and spruce beer, and then see the girls home. The next day little or no work done." Dancing, with its explicit rules to achieve alliances and move around harmoniously, completed the theatrical affirmation of the community, its bonds and its means to reproduce itself. As the "frolic" of youths occurred under the watch of parents, power permeated work, meal and play. Access required approval. Parental authority acted as the gatekeeper and the guarantor of propriety. An initial discriminatory act excluded outsiders and identified insiders who would comply with the community's conventions and norms. (24)
The shared meal complemented collective labor and food circuits. It helped to constitute networks in neighborhoods precisely because it marked boundaries and implemented social homogeneity among the partakers. So much is clear from the many celebratory events, whether joyful or melancholy, that characterized the life cycle around 1800: inevitably including drinks, dishes and dances, it was not uncommon for marriage festivities to last for three days and nights; funerals united "a considerable concourse of people" who shared a glass to honor the deceased, but most importantly to close ranks around those left behind so as to restore the community's integrity. However, such heavy ritual expenditures proved necessary because the cooperative spirit among neighbors had its limits. It is misleading to describe the bee as a collective effort which good-natured, selfless neighbors accomplished without counting (as Crevecoeur's sentimental description and other somewhat romantic observations--and maybe our spontaneous inclination--purport). Solidarity took its psychological toll and had its economic cost. Indeed this close-knit society, in which cooperation was the rule, teemed with tensions. Jealousies and insults readily grew into conflicts. Clashes resulted in damages to property, fistfights and challenges to duels.
Food certainly rewarded toil and restored the physical strength of those who had contributed to the collective enterprise. But the meal as a social situation instituted the space in which conviviality helped sustain communal concord. The gratification of eating in a neighbor's home or barn came with the obligation to respect the peace of the place. (25)
The purpose of meals was to inculcate and perpetuate social norms. Congeniality made the realization of this aim easier to the point of dissimulating it. Neighborhood events tended to happen in an atmosphere of equality, although black Americans participated mostly as musicians in the dancing. Sociability replicated overall social hierarchy. Other situations exposed the hierarchical nature of the relations between eaters. When employers provided food and sat down to eat with their workers, the intimacy of the table aimed at creating a personal obligation that went beyond the business terms of employment. The relaxed ambiance and informality at the table of William Thomson's boss in Washington Hollow, Dutchess County, where "the workmen sat at the table without their coats, their shirt sleeves rolled up," should not hide from view that even sociable manufacturers resorted to coercion. Abner Austin organized occasional meals for his workforce. He gave himself the role of the pater familias, provider and protector of a large manufacturing household, in which he enforced abstinence from hard liquor. Master tanner William Edwards of Hunter often shared breakfast with his journeymen from the 1820s through the 1840s; sitting at the head of the table, he would recite a grace, probably intended to hone the manners and Christian feelings of a group of artisans not known for their refinement or their religious zeal. In all these instances where owners initiated a meal, the biological imperative fails to capture the entire motivation. Table and talk were a rehearsal of conduct to regulate behavior elsewhere. It was a tool whose goal it was to enforce discipline at work. (26)
The social functions of extraordinary as well as ordinary meals appear readily in their capacity to generate feelings of belonging, to pacify tensions, and to reproduce social structures, whether they were egalitarian or hierarchical. As with all social mechanisms, there are instances in which they failed. Visits could be "dreadful" as when Martha James and Maria Bogardus stopped by at the Dubois household. Parental supervision of frolics among youngsters did not prevent Merinda Johnson from finding herself pregnant after a spinning bee. The family imperative in artisanal shops, where work and home spaces almost coincided, broke down: then apprentices ran away and journeymen were thrown out. The feast to close collective efforts strengthened neighborhood ties but could not always contain tensions. Men came to blows. When fights ensued after work and meal, there were only two issues. Either one participant would be defeated and lose his honor, or the pugilists would "drink friends" to avoid shame and restore the peace. Reconciliation, too, required a drink: to share the same beverage signified the restoration of diplomatically nonviolent relations. (27)
The Case for a Case: Insights from the Hudson Valley
Foodways offer an angle on the organizing principles of particular societies. This portrait applies to the food economy of Hudson Valley neighborhoods between the end of the eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. The small-scale investigation uncovers the importance of beliefs about nature, of attitudes toward the physical environment and its exploitation, of the construction of social rapports and their effect on the satisfaction of biological needs. These are the "conditioning factors" (to use Thomas Cochran's notion) of the routines of eating and drinking. The Hudson Valley configuration may be specific and distinct, but these features influence practices elsewhere. The historical exploration of the varied forms and contents they take in other contexts promise comparative insights into modes of living. The relation between the system of food consumption and these determinant elements are, however, reciprocal. Meals perform social tasks. They help to rhythm and orchestrate social interaction; they channel behavior. They provide information on the values that hold societies together (or drive them apart). The scrutiny of identified variables opens pathways to general observations about the ways in which societies institute and organize themselves. (28)
Indifference to food, its production and consumption was no option for Hudson Valley residents in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Positive and self-conscious, negative and often unacknowledged reasons kept foodways in the realm of social experience. Of course, Marks Barker and St.-John de Crevecoeur saw eye to eye when it came to the benefits of "going to drink tea with each other." As the French aristocrat noted, such a visit "implies several very agreeable ideas: that of riding sometimes five or six miles; that of chatting much and hearing the news of the county; and that of eating heartily." In short, shared food restored the body, warmed the heart, and stimulated the mind. This is, of course, both a comforting and a conventional conclusion. It confirms our unquestioned beliefs in meals as rather more delightful occasions. (29)
But provisioning and food consumption assumed other social functions. Private visiting and mutual invitations are a case in point: they confirmed the fact of belonging to the same group, to the same society with its privileges and obligations. They created a sense of community, of shared values. However, in doing this, they sorted people. They responded to rather more constraining, even discriminatory aims. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together. Meals both confirmed and sustained the social structure and its dynamics. It is a function that outlasted the great transformation of rural society in the course of the nineteenth century. The progress of democracy in post-revolutionary North America led to a decline of elite-sponsored fetes with generous, if socially compelling, distributions of free food and drink; the emergence of a rural middle class fostered a turn toward more private emotions and the decline of public celebrations associated with the life cycle (marriages, funerals); and the rise of wage labor reduced the social meaning of food on farms and in factories. (30) But such change did not weaken the most common function of meals: that of marking boundaries between insiders and outsiders, and hence that of inculcating cultural norms.
Ignorance, whether blissful or unhappy, of food proved impossible in the Hudson Valley because production, distribution and consumption within neighborhoods and families happened in response to natural and social constraints. First, the profusion of victuals was a means to compensate for what appeared as an insecure grip on agricultural production, and to that extent, it is safe to say that the contrapuntal purpose of exceptional, rich and, at times, obviously excessive communal eating and drinking moves the Hudson Valley of the early 1800s into closer proximity to traditional cultures with their sense of limited, imperilled resources. It was not so much a means to overcome a dreary, repetitive, monotonous pattern of everyday consumption than a result of the anxiety that nature would regularly foil human efforts. (31) Second, this worried outlook stimulated not only the collective combination of labor, but the individual cultivation of gardens to improve food security. In turn, homegrown produce and fruit entered neighborhood circuits in a food economy. It was foremost a moral economy in which social relations mattered as much, if not more, than the single exchanged good. Permanency as well as emotional content distinguished the local network from much commercial exchange (it is, however, good to remember that lasting personal connections sustained some trade as they generated trust between business partners). And finally, meals happened only after a first hurdle of discrimination had helped to select participants. The selection did by no means imply equality. The context of each meal reinforced prior social relations and thus replicated hierarchies.
Hudson Valley resident Washington Irving does not always get the credit he deserves as an observer of social events and etiquette. Yet we should listen to his description of a literary dinner: "There are ... certain geographical boundaries in the land of literature, and you may judge tolerably well of an author's popularity, by the wine his bookseller gives him. An author crosses the port line about the third edition and gets into claret, but when he has reached the sixth and seventh, he may revel in champagne and burgundy ... You find at these great dinners the common steady run of authors, one, two-edition men; ... [then it is] a meeting of the republic of letters, ... they must expect nothing but plain fare." Irving's traveller required a go-between to initiate him to the subtleties of the table. But he ended up understanding its arrangement as well as the capacity of foods to convey cultural meaning and express social classification. At present, so do we: thanks to the historical investigation we now know better than to overlook the foodways in the early nineteenth century. And we no longer confuse communion and commensality with innocuous conviviality. Neither here, nor elsewhere. (32)
F94 205 Ivy-sur-Seine Cedex
Field Home and Ed Knoblauch deserve many thanks for improving the content and the language of this article.
(1.) Narrative of Marks Barker, Aug. 2828, Columbia County Historical Society (ColCHS); in May 1824 Barker recollected his "superintending the Columbia Mills" where he had manufactured "many thousands of bushels of wheat raised near this river."
(2.) J. Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat, or Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America (Cooperstown, 1838), pp. 164-165; around 1800, the French visitor Constantin Volney made the same comment in Tableau du climat et du sol des Etats-Unis d'Amerique (1803) dans Oeuvres de C. F. Volney (Paris, 1825), vol. 4, pp. 270, 308-310.
(3.) Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America. Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992), pp. 74-78; Christopher Clark, Social Change in America. From the Revolution through the Civil War (Chicago, 2006), pp. 105-110; Richard Stott, Jolly Fellows. Male Milieus in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore, 2009), pp. 1-186.
(4.) Lorena S. Walsh, "Consumer Behavior, Diet, and the Standard of Living in Late Colonial and Early Antebellum America, 1770-1840," in Robert E. Gallman, John Joseph Wallis (eds.), American Economic Growth and Standards of Living Before the Civil War (Chicago, 1992), pp. 217-261; Sarah F. McMahon, '"A Comfortable Subsistence': The Changing Composition of Diet in Rural New England, 1620-1840," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 42/1 (Jan. 1985): 26-65.
(5.) A good way to get reacquainted with this question is to return to Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville, 1992), pp. 13-33.
(6.) Eugen Weber, "Fairies and Hard Facts: The Reality of Folktales," Journal of the History of Ideas 42/1 (Jan.-March 1981): 93-113; Robert Darnton, "Peasants Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose," in Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York, 1985), pp. 9-72; for an excellent overview, see Rudolf Schenda, "Hunger, Hungersnot," in Enzyklopadie des Marchens (Berlin, 1990), vol. 6, col. 1380-1395; Judith Richardson, Possessions: The History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley (Cambridge, MA, 2003); Legends and Poetry of the Hudson (New York, 1868); Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," in Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (New York, 1988), p. 279.
(7.) James D. Pickney, Reminiscences of Catskill. Local Sketches (Catskill, 1868), p. 12; Richard B. Stott, Workers in the Metropolis. Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City (Ithaca, 1990), pp. 80, 176-181.
(8.) William Thomson, A Tradesman's Travels in the United States and Canada (Edinburgh, 1842) in Roger Haydon (ed.), Upstate Travels: British Views of Nineteenth-Century New York (Syracuse, 1982), p. 44.
(9.) Hudson Bee, 25 Feb. 1817, p. 3; Abner Austin to John Jay Lappan, 21 April 1821, Austin Collection, MV 1095, Greene County, NY, Historical Society (GrCHS); Alexander Coventry Diary, 11 Feb. 1828 (typescript), New York State Library (NYSL); Catskill Messenger, 11 Feb. 1837, p. 2; Harriet Olmsted to John Olmsted, 5 Oct. 1834, 14 Jan. 1837 in "Selections from the Correspondance and Diaries of John Olmsted, 1826-1838," pp. 90, 178, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. On the social composition of relief rolls in New York State, see Joan Underhill Hannon, "Poverty in the Antebellum Northeast: The View from New York State's Poor Relief Rolls," Journal of Economic History 44/4 (Dec. 1984): 1007-1032.
(10.) Irving, "Rip Van Winkle," in Irving, The Sketch Book, pp. 30-32.
(11.) Pickney, Reminiscences, p. 29. For food peddling as business venture for women today, see "For Women, a Recipe to Create a Successful Business," New York Times, 23 June 2007.
(12.) Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776, Chicago, 1976), book 2, p. 399; Carl Ludwig Fleischmann, Erwerbszweige, Fabrikwesen und Handel der Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika (Stuttgart, 1852), p. 259; Niks' Weekly Register 34 (29 March 1828), pp. 76-77; Kinderhook Manufacturing Society Journal, 1 April 1816, ColCHS; Documents Relative to Manufactures in the United States (a.k.a. McLane Report on Manufactures), 22d Cong., 1st sess. 1833, pp. 31, 33, 35, 66; Dorothy Olmsted to John Olmsted, 14 Feb. 1835, in "Selections," p. 107.
(13.) Hudson Bee, 7 Feb. 1815, p. 1; Abraham J. Hasbrouck Journals 1801 and 1824, New York Historical Society (NYHS); Great Imbought (Catskill) Farm Account Book, 1815-1816, NYHS; Pickney, Reminiscences, p. 30 (clams); the Dubois family went fishing but also bought shad, see Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 29 May 1840, 25 April, 8 May 1841, 21 April, 4 May 1842; Harriet Olmsted to John Olmsted, 20 Nov. 1837, in "Selections," p. 201; "The Recollections of Edward McGraw," in Edward M. Ruttenber, History of the Town of New Windsor, Orange County, New York (Newburgh, 1911), p. 49; Workmen's Ledger 1816-1817, MV 1052, Austin Collection, GrCHS; Theodore Mallaby to Thomas Mallaby, 3 March 1843, Rev. Thomas Mallaby Correspondence, pers. misc. box 19, New York Public Library (NYPL); Harriet Van Orden Account Book 1834, NYSL.
(14.) Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 23 July 1842; Gregory H. Noble, The Life and Work of Thomas Cole, ed. by Elliott S. Vessell (Cambridge, MA, 1964), p. 42; Margaret Washington (ed.), Narrative of Sojourner Truth (New York, 1993), pp. 9-10; John Burroughs, My Boyhood (Garden City, 1924), p. 55; Harriet Van Orden Account Book, 26 Sept., 6, 14 Oct., 16 Dec. 1834.
(15.) Catskill Messenger, 12 April 1832, p. 2; Vincent Morgan Townsend Diary, 26 Dec. 1833, 12 Jan. 1834, Cornell University Archives.
(16.) For the low appreciation of mutton in general, see James Stuart, Three Years in North America (Edinburgh, 1833), vol. 1, p. 279; Bristol Glass Factory Ledger 1816-1817, Ulster County Genealogical Society. For the expanding market for lamb, see D. B. Tuttle & Son Daybook 1850, Pratt Museum; Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society 9 (1849), pp. 60-61; for pork and some beef purchases, sec Steele Daybook, 1818-1823, Pratt Museum, Prattsville. Poultry: William Youngs Diary, 27 Oct. 1811, NYSHA; Vincent Morgan Townsend Diary, 15 Jan. 1834 ("excellent dinner--roast turkey"); Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 25 Dec. 1839, 1 Jan. 1840, 3 July 1842, GrCHS; Sarah Mynderse Campbell Diary, 24 Feb. 1827, 22 Feb. 1828, 23 Feb. 1829, 16 March 1827, NYHS.
(17.) Henry Hill, Recollections of an Octogenerian (Boston, 1884), p. 22; Catskill Recorder, 3 July 1811, p. 2; Pickney, Reminiscences, p. 25; "The Recollections of Edward McGraw," p. 49; Burroughs, My Boyhood, pp. 60, 64-65; Crevecoeur, Letters, p. 283; on the importance of gardens in the Midwest, see John Mack Farragher, Sugar Creek. Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven, 1986), p. 101.
(18.) Richard Osborn Cummings, The American and His Food. A History of Food Habits in the United States, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1941), pp. 20-21; Catskill American Eagle, 12 July 1809, p. 3. For garden work: Pickney, Reminiscences, pp. 9 (lawyer J. V. D. S. Scott), 28, 40 (shipbuilder Hiland Hill), 43, 45; Kinderhook Sentinel, 10 Aug. 1837, p. 2, and 2 Sept. 1844, p. 2; Alexander Coventry Diary, 6-15 May 1786, 12-14 April 1789; Harriet Van Orden Account Book, 24 May and 18 June 1834; William Coventry Diary, 8-17 May 1790, 19-23 April 1791, 6-8 May 1792, Oct. 1801, NYSHA; Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 8 June 1836, 5 April 1837, 11 May 1841, GrCHS; Hannah Bushnell Diary, 17 May 1854, MV 366, GrCHS; Isaac DeWitt Farm Account Book, 24 April 1824, 19 March 1825, 9 Dec. 1826 (Cornelius Winne hired to slaughter animals), Albany Institute of History and Art; George Holcomb Diary, 29 March 1832, NYSL; Sarah Mynderse Campbell Diary, 8 May 1824, 16-18 May 1829; William Hoffman Diary, 12 March 1847, NYHS; Hannah Barnard, Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy and the Fashionable Follies of the World (Hudson, 1820), p. 43; Sarah F. McMahon, "Laying Foods By. Gender, Dietary Decisions and the Technology of Food Preservation in New England Households, 1750-1850," in Judith A. McGaw (ed.), Early American Technology. Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850 (Chapel Hill, 1994), pp. 164-196.
(19.) Thomson, Tradesman's Travels, p. 44; John Bower Diary, 1844-1845, Adriance Memorial Library; A. Houghtaling and John L. Brook, 31 March 1849, New Baltimore Ms file, GrCHS (garden as an incentive for an agricultural laborer); New York State Census for 1825, Austerlitz, Austerlitz Town Clerk; U.S. Census Office, 7th Census 1850, Agricultural Schedules, Coxsackie, Durham and Greenville, Greene County, New York.
(20.) Abner Austin to Messr. Dwight, 28 June 1826, Letter Copies, Austin Collection, MV 1095; Zephaniah Chase Account Book 1787 and 1799, NYSL; Alexander Coventry Diary, 25 Nov. 1789, 18 and 22 Feb. 1790; Silvina Bramhell to Mehetable Bramhell, 12 Nov. 1820, Elias W. Cady Papers, Cornell University Archives; George Holcomb Diary, 25 April 1831, 25-26 May 1832; Hannah Bushnell Diary, 2 Dec. 1854, 21 and 25 April, 23 Oct. 1855; Isaac DeWitt Farm Account Book, 6 and 11 Aug. 1823, 26 and 28 Jan. 1826; Samuel Fowks Account Book 1817-1822, MV 1146, GrCHS. For an inventory of exchange relations, monetary and material, in the farm economy, see Martin Bruegel, "The Social Relations of Farming: A Microhistorical Approach," Journal of the Early Republic 26 (Winter 2006): 523-553.
(21.) On swappings, see Susan Geib, "Changing Works": Agriculture and Society in Brookfield, Massachusetts, Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1981; Christopher Clark, The Roots of Rural Capitalism. Western Massachusetts, 1780-1860 (Ithaca, 1990), pp. 34-38; Farragher, Sugar Creek, pp. 130-155; on the importance of work to a good's identity in exchange, see Marcel Mauss, "Essai sur le don," in Marcel Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris, 1950), pp. 265-273.
(22.) Lucinda Davenport to John Olmsted, 30 Dec. 1834, in "Selections," p. 99; Caroline A. Morss to Frederick Kirtland, 26 April 1830, Caroline A. Morss Papers, NYSL; Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 19 and 24 May 1834, 17 July 1840, 20 Jan. 1843, 25 Aug., 3 Sept. 1846, 22 Jan. 1847.
(23.) John Beebe Diary, 23 June 1785, Chatham Public Library; Alexander Coventry Diary, 22 July, 16 Sept., 25 Nov. 1786, 7 Oct. 1790; William Coventry Diary, 28 Feb. 1791, 6 and 12 July, 21 Aug. 1792, 29 Sept. 1800; Thomson, Tradesman, p. 46; George Holcomb Diary, 9 Dec. 1808.
(24.) Alexander Coventry Diary, 23 June 1786, 26 April 1787; George Holcomb Diary, 3 March 1814; Ann-Janette Dubois participated in quilting bees that brought together women only; see her Diary, 17 Sept. 1834, 30 July 1840.
(25.) Abraham Wells to Leonard Bronk, 8 March 1787, Bronk Ms, GrCHS; Alexander Coventry Diary, 7-8 April 1791, 28 Oct. 1786 (funeral); Crevecoeur, letters, pp. 103-104, 277; on the cheerful appearance of the harvest field all over Britain, filled with male and female reapers and gleaners, see James Stuart, Three Years, vol. 1, pp. 280, 264, 270; on the invention of the peaceful peasant countryside in eighteenth-century Europe, see Liana Vardi, "Imagining the Harvest in Early Modern Europe," American Historical Review 101/5 (Dec. 1996): 1397. On tensions, see Martin Bruegel, Farm, Shop, Landing. The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley (Durham, 2002), pp. 27-34.
(26.) Thomson, Tradesman, pp. 43-44; Abner Austin to Messr. Dwight, 28 June 1826, Letter Copies, Austin Collection, MV 1095; Workmen's Ledger, fol. 96 (30 April 1823), fol. 139 (10 May 1824), Austin Collection, MV 1060; Memoirs of Col. William Edwards ... Written by Himself, in His 76th Year, 1847 (Washington, D.C., 1897), pp. 88-89.
(27.) Ann-Janette Dubois Diary, 8 July 1841; John Johnson v. Peter Bogardus, Greene County Court of Common Pleas 1822, GrCHS; for a European perspective on the same custom that emphasizes sexual regulation, see Hans Medick, "Spinnstuben auf dem Dorf. Jugendliche Sexualkultur und Feierabendbrauche in der landlichen Gesellschaft der fruhen Neuzeit," in Gerhard Huck (ed.), Sozialgeschichte der Freizeit. Untersuchungen zum Wandel der Alltagskultur in Deutschland (Wuppertal, 1980), pp. 19-49; John Olmsted to Mary Olmsted, 30 Aug. 1828, in "Selections," pp. 9-10; Hudson Balance-Advertiser, 19 Jan. 1808, p. 2; Bristol Glass Factory Ledger, 14 Nov. 1816; Alexander Coventry Diary, 28 Sept. 1786; Memorandum of Evidence Taken on Inquisition on the Body of Sanders Goes Laying Dead, 7 June 1780, Bronk Ms. 1780, GrCS; William Coventry Diary, 22 Dec. 1798.
(28.) Thomas C Cochran, "The 'Presidential Synthesis' in American History," American Historical Review 53/4 (July 1948): 748-759.
(29.) Crevecoeur, Letters, p. 299.
(30.) For large-scale developments, see Clark, Social Change, pp. 79-168; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought. The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York, 2007), pp. 525-569.
(31.) On the apprehension that "the uncertainty and unpredictability of nature's forces buffeted the lives and prospects of all human beings," see Charles E. Brooks, Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution. The Holland land Purchase (Ithaca, 1996), pp. 127-128.
(32.) Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveller, by Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (London, 1824), pp. 184-185.
By Martin Bruegel Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique
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|Title Annotation:||FOOD HISTORY|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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