Two USF professors offer a crash course in American food history
Said one professor: “A lot of the foodways in the early republic reflected how Americans were thinking about themselves and how they wanted to shape their identity.”
Here at The Zest, we love exploring Florida history through the lens of food. Today we’re zooming out and learning about the role food played in shaping U.S. history. Our guides are Dr. Cassandra Yacovazzi and Dr. Julia Irwin, both University of South Florida history professors.
“When we think of foodways in early America, we can categorize them into three groups,” Yacovazzi says. British influence was seen in pies, cakes, stews, biscuits and preserves. Native American influence was seen in foods like cornmeal, which early settlers used—reluctantly at first—when they couldn’t afford to import wheat. And then there was Americans’ new identity—how they wanted to see themselves.
“A lot of the foodways in the early republic reflected how Americans were thinking about themselves and how they wanted to shape their identity,” Yacovazzi says.
In the early days of the republic, New Englanders survived on mostly bland food. But in the South, Americans enjoyed more flavorful dishes due longer growing seasons, wealth to import spices and the labor of enslaved cooks, who incorporated West African traditions. Their influence would eventually permeate the nation.
“A lot of freed men and women after the Civil War, and especially after Reconstruction, moved North, and they brought their food traditions with them and really shaped some of the food traditions of the nation,” Yacovazzi says.
Food continued to play a significant role throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War I, one of America’s slogans was food will win the war. Herbert Hoover, then head of the U.S. Food Administration, encouraged Americans to cut back on certain food items so there would be more for the Allied Soldiers. In fact, Hoover coined the terms Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.
Food plays a role in American diplomacy even today, Irwin says.
“There’s a term ‘winning hearts and minds,’ but a lot of policymakers talk about winning hearts, minds and stomachs,” says Irwin, who appears in a video series from the American Historical Association about World War I eating habits.
Throughout history, a majority of America’s cooks have been females, whether they were housewives, domestic servants or enslaved people. After the Civil War, innovations such as mass-produced canned food made cooking less laborious and allowed for more variety—for instance, New Englanders could enjoy canned fruit in winter.
“People were excited to get canned food,” Irwin says. She says examining food can teach us a lot about the history of America’s labor force. “Food work tells us so much about how the economy of the United States has always functioned.”
To learn more about early American foodways, check out the High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (Netflix) and Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi (Hulu).
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