Kitchens, Colonial Americans

The 200 years of European settlement leading to the American Revolution saw many changes in how colonists ate. Initially, most settlements struggled
simply to provide enough food for their inhabitants. In time, challenges instead came from new foods and new ideas about food preparation.
Family life and domestic chores in colonial America revolved around the kitchen. The open hearth, dating to the early seventeenth century, was the most
important feature and the center of activity. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)

Similar to their European counterparts, women in the early seventeenth century cooked over open hearths. A poor family cooked and lived in the same
room. A wealthy family would have additional rooms. Both Northern and Southern colonists tried to isolate their kitchens at the back of the house to
minimize the risk of fire. When possible, Southern families built a separate building for cooking; Northerners usually did not, so that the kitchens also
would serve to help heat the house.

Most hearths began with a pole made of green wood, suspended inside the chimney. Greenwood poles were easily available, but a cook had to watch
the pole carefully as it would dry out and break after a few months, plunging the meal into the fire. The next step up was an iron bar, again suspended
over the fire. Chains hung off the bar or pole. For a low simmer, the pot was hung from the top of the chain and moved down to the hot flames as
needed. Ideally, a cook wanted a crane arm, an iron bar that swung out from the side of the chimney. Crane arms were safer and gave far more control
over cooking.

Nearly all colonists brought at least one or two cast-iron pots from Europe. The first hung over the fire for cooking and heating water. Women with only
one pot could lower smaller jugs or puddings tied in cloth into this pot and cook two or three dishes at once. The second pot usually had legs and a flat
lid and was called a bake kettle or Dutch oven. Hot embers were raked onto the hearth, and the pot was set on top of the embers with bread, cake, or
pie inside. The lid, loaded with more embers, was placed on top. A hooked tool was used to lift the lid, which had a small handle. The embers would be
changed once or twice during the cooking time. The bake kettle could be used on fires both inside and out of the home.

Wealthier and more settled colonists acquired other utensils. A spit, an iron bar placed on top of two andirons in front of the fire, was used for roasting
meat. A family unable to afford a spit or andirons suspended meat on strings from the bar over the hearth, spinning it to provide an even heat. A griddle
(a flat iron pan) could be hung from the bar for cooking flat breads. A spider pan (a frying pan on legs) was used over hot embers, similar to the bake
kettle. Toasters held two slices of bread in an iron frame. They were set in front of the fire and swung round to allow both sides to brown. A mulling iron,
a long iron poker, was kept buried in the hot embers below the flames. It could be plunged into a mug or pitcher to instantly heat the contents. Most
kitchens were also equipped with various smaller utensils, graters, and mortars and pestles.

Larger houses often had a bake oven, a hollow space in the chimney next to the hearth. A separate fire was kindled in the bake oven and allowed to
burn for two hours or more. The hot embers were raked out and the oven quickly doused with a damp broom to prevent sparks. Food was placed inside
the oven, and a wooden or iron door was set in front of it. The heat from the bake oven lasted for several hours, and most families would do a week’s
baking in a day.

Many communities also provided a freestanding outdoor bake oven for residents. It worked in the same way as the indoor ovens. Used by those who
didn’t have their own oven, it also allowed families to pool their limited supplies of firewood for baking.

By the late eighteenth century, food preparation had begun to change in Europe. While the open hearth remained the most common way of cooking food
until the early nineteenth century, new adaptations circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. The tin kitchen or reflector oven became common in the 1760s.
It had a curved tin back and was open in the front. A spit was suspended across the front, and meat was placed on the spit. With the open side placed
facing the fire, the heat from the fire hit the curved back and was reflected back toward the meat, roasting it.

A French method of cooking spread first to England and French Canada and then to the English colonies. Iron mesh baskets, holding hot coals, were
lowered into the top of a hollow brick box built against a wall. A trivet was set on top of the coals, providing an even heat for cooking. This method
evolved into the closed cookstoves of the nineteenth century.

The colonial period saw a constant need to adapt to new dishes and ingredients. For example, oats grew easily in the rough soil and harsh climate of the
outer British Isles and were regarded as a dietary mainstay for much of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. In contrast, neither wheat nor oats grew well in the
parts of the New World that were first settled, so the colonists instead learned to grow corn from their Native American neighbors. However, they
continued to prepare corn in the same way as they had prepared oats, pounding and simmering it into mush. Corn was also ground and made into flat
cakes. It could be baked on a board held up to the fire or in a bake kettle or oven. Other new foods were squash, beans, maple syrup, cranberries,
blueberries, and new types of fish and game. Again, colonists were introduced to these foods by Native Americans.

Trade in the colonial period also brought many changes. Spanish explorers in sixteenth-century South America came across two new foods, the potato
and tomato, and brought them home to Europe. By the end of the eighteenth century, both vegetables had traveled back across the Atlantic to North
America. Plantations in the Caribbean made sugar and molasses available. Trade worldwide brought spices and other exotic foods, such as subtropical
and tropical fruits, to colonial seaport towns. For the most part, these items were still only available to the rich, but many settlers knew of them.
A gradual rise in literacy and printed materials led to the writing of several cookbooks in England over the course of the colonial period. Some of the most
common British cookbooks of this period include Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife in 1615, Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife in 1727, and
Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747. Like the others, Markham’s book advised women on subjects such as cooking,
dairying, brewing, baking, and distilling. The records of the Virginia Company indicate that at least one copy of Markham’s book was brought to Virginia by

In time, however, colonial women began voicing complaints about these British cookbooks, as they did not offer information about ingredients available in
North America. While some foods had adapted well to traditional methods, the women wanted additional suggestions and advice. The first attempt to
address this problem was in 1742. William Parks, a printer in Williamsburg, edited out all references to British ingredients and reprinted Eliza Smith’s The
Compleat Housewife.

Finally, in 1796, a woman named Amelia Simmons published a book titled American Cookery. Although many of her recipes were borrowed directly from
British books of the period, she included such American ingredients as cornmeal, pumpkin, and pearlash (an early forerunner of baking soda, made from
wood ash). Simmons’s book was an instant success and led to several British cookbooks being rewritten for their American audiences.

The early years of colonial exploration and settlement occurred at the very end of the medieval period. Most people in Europe were still living the same
way as their ancestors. By the late eighteenth century, Europe had seen nearly 300 years of extensive exploration and trade. Food cooked anywhere in
the colonies was influenced by two patterns of change: the circumstances of the New World and the ideas sweeping across the Atlantic as part of the

Abigail B. Chandler
See also: Food and Diet; Furnishings; Housing; Servants, Domestic; Document: Colonial Recipe for Apple Tansey (1754).
Baker, James. “English Yeoman Foodways at Plimoth Plantation.” In The Plimoth Plantation New England Cookery Book. Boston: Harvard Common, 1990.
Black, Maggie. A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain. London: British Museum, 1993.
Bullock, Helen. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. Richmond, VA: Dietz, 1966.
Gilgun, Beth. Tidings from the 18th Century. Texarkana, TX: Rebel, 1993.
Wilson, Mary Tolford. “The First American Cookbook.” In A Facsimile of American Cookery, 1796. New York: Dover, 1958.

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