What's for Breakfast?

Suppose you are one of the young Grima children, and you live in your family's big house in New Orleans in the 1860s. You wake up in your bed on a sunny weekday morning in October--what's for breakfast?

How would we know, 150 years later, what specific things people ate so long ago, before there were refrigerators or microwaves? Grocery lists and menus are not often saved for historians to examine. How would anyone know 150 years from now, what you ate this morning?

Mr. Hank Trent, with The Bradford Place museum in Ohio, has thought about this problem with regard to the family who lived during the 1860s in the house where he works. Here is how he approached the problem (Mr. Trent has given his kind permission for HGGH to quote him here):

First, we figured a basic budget for our family, and their total income of about $350 a year was "low", so that meant they would be eating food on the cheaper end of the scale.

A look at a nearby store's 1862 daybook showed what food items were typically purchased there by local people. For instance, fresh beef was sold every couple of weeks, about one steer's worth all on one day, so evidently regular customers were told when the next butchering was coming up, and they'd all prepare to come in and pick up about 10 pounds of meat each, which probably lasted each family a couple of days (we found lots of period cookbook recipes for using leftover cooked beef, probably for just such an occasion).

The daybook also showed what spices and essences were popular in the area, and that soda was often sold, but no baking powder and rarely cream of tartar. Agricultural reports and seed catalogs from the general area gave us an idea of what varieties of fruits and vegetables and what breeds of livestock were providing our food.

Then we looked at travellers' accounts, diaries, short stories, or anything that mentioned ordinary meals, paying the most attention to accounts as close as possible to our social class and geographical area. This helped to put meals in context, since the authors usually commented on whether an item was frugal or special, old-fashioned or new, etc.

Since a large portion of our characters' food would have been from their own or neighbors' gardens, we made up a chart for when various fruits and vegetables were available fresh, and also how they would have been stored and when they were available from storage. This gave us an idea of how much we'll need to have in the cellar or hanging up to dry or whatever, at the beginning of the storage period.

Then, knowing what foods were available at various times of year, we started looking at cookbooks and handwritten recipe collections from the 1830-1860 period (since the wife began cooking in the 1830s). This also gave us an idea of food trends, such as the increasing use of artificial leavenings that started with pearlash in gingerbread and increased to soda in regular breads and cakes.

The authors' ethnic and geographic backgrounds, and their own comments on the recipes, along with the research above, made it pretty easy to choose typical recipes and put them in context: Indian pudding, pound cake and gingerbread are ordinary and old-fashioned; plum pudding is for Christmas only; parsnips are a late winter favorite; oysters are a special treat; pork and corn are inevitable dietary staples for a Virginia cook transplanted not far from Cincinnati....

In this way, food can be integrated into the whole economic, ethnic and social context of the family. Not only does this kind of research help you decide whether the diet is typical, too upscale or too downscale, but it also helps put specific meals or dishes in context, so you can tell if they'd be greeted with a chorus of "Not again!" or "What's the special occasion?"

As you can see, Mr. Trent starts by asking what the family could afford, and what sort of ingredients were available. Recipes from cookbooks popular at the time show how dishes would be prepared, and since before refrigeration many of the ingredients would be only seasonally available, it is important to know what the typical crops were.

What did you have for breakfast today?

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