What Americans Ate for Breakfast & Dinner 200 Years Ago: Watch Re-Creations of Original Recipes (2024)

in Food & Drink, History | July 12th, 2022 7 Comments

For all the oth­er faults of the 2020s, most of human­i­ty now enjoys culi­nary vari­ety the likes of which it has nev­er before known. Two cen­turies ago, the selec­tion was con­sid­er­ably nar­row­er. Back then the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, yet to become the high­ly devel­oped leader of “the free world,” remained for the most part a fair­ly hard­scrab­ble land. This comes through in a book like Democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca, whichAlex­is de Toc­queville wrote after trav­el­ing across the coun­ty in the 1830s — or on a Youtube chan­nel like Ear­ly Amer­i­can, which re-cre­ates life as lived by Amer­i­cans of decades before then.

Not long ago, Ear­ly Amer­i­can’s view­er­ship explod­ed. This seems to have owed tocook­ing videos like the one at the top of the post, “A Reg­u­lar Folks’ Sup­per 200 Years Ago.” The menu, on this imag­ined March day in 1820 Mis­souri, includes beef, mashed turnips, car­rots, rolls, and boiled eggs: not a bad-look­ing spread, as it turns out, though its fla­vors may leave some­thing to be desired for the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry palate.

Many of Ear­ly Amer­i­can’s new com­menters, writes chan­nel co-cre­ator Jus­tine Dorn, are telling her “to add this sea­son­ing and this and that,” but “then it would no longer be loy­al to the actu­al orig­i­nal recipe, which is why you all are here to begin with.”

In the case of the reg­u­lar folks’ sup­per, its recipes come straight from an 1803 vol­ume calledThe Fru­gal House­wife. As for the john­ny­cakes fea­tured in “Mak­ing a Work­ing Class Break­fast in 1820,”you’ll find their recipe in Amelia Sim­mons’ Amer­i­can Cook­ery from 1796, the first known cook­book writ­ten by an Amer­i­can. The meal also includes a yeast­less bread for which no prop­er recipe exists. How­ev­er, Dorn writes, “there are sev­er­al men­tions of work­ing class peo­ple who baked bread with­out yeast in the auto­bi­ogra­phies of trav­el­ers in the eigh­teenth and ear­ly nine­teenth cen­turies. Because of this we know that it was a com­mon prac­tice.”

Made from a mod­i­fied fam­i­ly recipe passed down since the 1750s, this yeast­less bread looks appeal­ing enough, espe­cial­ly toast­ed over the fire and served with apple but­ter. But we must acknowl­edge that tastes have changed over the cen­turies. “I am not claim­ing that this food is good,” Dorn writes. “Some­times it isn’t. A lot of the foods and sea­son­ings that we take for grant­ed today were very hard to get back then or were only sea­son­al­ly avail­able.” But with sea­son­al, “local­ly sourced” ingre­di­ents in vogue these days, it’s worth exam­in­ingwhat, 200 years ago,real­ly went into asim­ple Indi­an meal pud­ding or an ear­ly mac­a­roni and cheese — albeit one pre­pared, in true 2020s fash­ion, ASMR-style.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The First Amer­i­can Cook­book: Sam­ple Recipes fromAmer­i­can Cook­ery(1796)

An Archive of 3,000 Vin­tage Cook­books Lets You Trav­el Back Through Culi­nary Time

A Data­base of 5,000 His­tor­i­cal Cookbooks–Covering 1,000 Years of Food History–Is Now Online

Archive of Hand­writ­ten Recipes (1600 – 1960) Will Teach You How to Stew a Calf’s Head and More

Real Inter­views with Peo­ple Who Lived in the 1800s

Based in Seoul,Col­in Mar­shallwrites and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­terBooks on Cities,the bookThe State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­lesand the video seriesThe City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at@colinmarshall, onFace­book, or onInsta­gram.

by Colin Marshall | Permalink | Comments (7) |

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Comments (7)

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  • Adrienne Boswell says:

    July 16, 2022 at 7:52 am

    It was com­mon prac­tice to make yeast­less bread because peo­ple used starters. Cook­books at the time would assume to the read­er knew to include starter, there was no need to men­tion it. Just as there is no spe­cif­ic water men­tioned in spaghet­ti and meat­balls, authors assume read­ers know to boil pas­ta in water. Addi­tion­al­ly, most peo­ple had access to a year-round herb gar­den so foods were prob­a­bly not as bland as they seem to be as cooks would include what­ev­er herbs, seeds, or bark they had avail­able.

  • Monty Pittman says:

    July 16, 2022 at 9:02 am

    I was read­ing the above sto­ry and it brought back child­hood mem­o­ries of my Mama mak­ing home­made hoe­cakes in a cast iron fry­ing pan, using flour, lard and but­ter­milk, mixing/kneading it all togeth­er, then flat­ten­ing it out in the cast iron, along with bacon drip­pings, then cook­ing it on the stove­top, serv­ing it with the break­fast of eggs, grits, bacon & fat­back and occa­sion­al­ly Vien­na sausage that we’d mix in with our grits.
    Some­times on Sat­ur­days, she would fry up salt­ed mack­er­el, serve it with grits and make what she would call spread out bread that was baked, using basi­cal­ly the same recipe as the hoe cake. My par­ents pro­vid­ed the best they could rais­ing four grow­ing kids back in the 50’s/60’s.


  • Gramzie Wytch says:

    July 16, 2022 at 11:25 am

    What an expe­ri­ence, watch­ing those old-fash­ioned meth­ods becom­ing what looked like deli­cious meals. In this day & age, when peo­ple can push a buu­ton & have a meal ready in min­utes, it shows how far-removed we are from the tedious & time-con­sum­ing ways were need­ed just to put a delec­table meal on the table! Love these videos…I’d like to try some of the recipes too…although in my mod­ern day oven/stove.


  • Lisa Brown says:

    July 17, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    Amaz­ing. I real­ly enjoyed watch­ing this. The recipe sim­ple. dif­fer­ent how meals are pre­pared in the fire­place. Awe­some his­toric his­to­ry, thank you.


  • Leonard says:

    July 18, 2022 at 9:57 am

    As a native New Eng­lan­der, how­ev­er trans­plant­ed else­where, all I can say is “ Thank You.” These demon­stra­tions clear­ly rein­force the philoso­phies of, “Waste not, want not” and “Fix it, make do, or do with­out!”
    These were tough peo­ple liv­ing in tough times” and yet they built lives so strong that we stand on their shoul­ders today. Again, thank you.


  • Karen A Schwabauer says:

    July 18, 2022 at 8:09 pm

    I don’t think those are turnips, I believe they are rutaba­gas.


  • Marlene E Thomas says:

    July 19, 2022 at 4:31 am

    I real­ly enjoyed watch­ing the video it was very enlight­en­ing.


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What Americans Ate for Breakfast & Dinner 200 Years Ago: Watch Re-Creations of Original Recipes (2024)


What did Americans eat 200 years ago? ›

Most fruits and vegetables were grown on the farmstead, and families processed meats such as poultry, beef, and pork. People had seasonal diets. In the spring and summer months, they ate many more fruits and vegetables than they did in the fall and winter.

What did people have for breakfast 200 years ago? ›

For most people, breakfast consisted of bread, cornmeal mush and milk, or bread and milk together, and tea. Even the gentry might eat modestly in the morning, although they could afford meat or fish...

What did Americans eat for breakfast in 1776? ›

For breakfast colonist might have eaten porridge or mush, which is a warm cereal and could have been made with cornmeal, oats or beans. They may have had bread with butter and jam, but one thing they would not have had was milk!

What did Americans in the 1800s eat for breakfast? ›

Fresh fruit was hard to find on the trail west, but dried apples were plentiful, so dried apple pies became standard breakfast fare in the Midwest during the 1800s. Butter was scarce, but Native Americans taught the settlers to make butter from crushed green hickory nuts to spread on their corn bread.

Did people eat breakfast 200 years ago? ›

Yes. The first meal of the day they ate 'broke the (overnight) fast' - so was 'break fast'/breakfast! It might have been at a time we'd call 'brunch' or, occasionally, as late as Noon/'lunchtime', but it was a meal to end their time without food.

What life was like 200 years ago? ›

Many lived a hand-to-mouth existence, working long hours in often harsh conditions. There was no electricity, running water or central heating. With no electric lighting (or gas) the rhythm of life revolved around the hours of daylight, and therefore would have varied with the seasons.

What did people eat for breakfast before eggs? ›

The most common food items were bread, cheese, and fruit. Breakfast was typically eaten in the morning, before starting the day's work. Over time, breakfast became more elaborate. Hot dishes such as porridge and eggs were added to the menu.

What was a typical meal in the 1700s? ›

During the 1700s, meals typically included pork, beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, chicken, corn, beans and vegetables, fruits, and numerous baked goods. Corn, pork, and beef were staples in most lower and middle class households.

What foods did people eat 100 years ago? ›

Bread, potatoes, cabbage, beans, and various kinds of cereal were the base of local cuisine. There was usually only one dish per meal on the table on regular days. On holidays, there could be several dishes served during the same meal, but they were the same as those cooked on regular days, as a rule.

What was a typical meal in 1776? ›

Colonial forests were packed with wild game, and turkey, venison, rabbit and duck were staples of the colonists' meat-heavy diets. In addition to these better-known (by modern standards) options, many colonists enjoyed eating passenger pigeons.

What did people drink for breakfast in the US in the 1700s? ›

Back then, small beer, full-strength beer, ale and hard cider were common breakfast drinks. John Adams began his mornings as president by downing a liter of hard cider and going for a swim in the Potomac river, stark naked.

What foods were popular in 1776? ›

The larger parts of the animals were roasted and served with currant and other sauces, while smaller portions went into soups, stews, sausages, pies, and pasties. Venison was the most popular game. The plentiful meat was often potted or jerked, and its tripe was popular as well.

What did pioneers eat for breakfast? ›

Beans, cornmeal mush, Johnnycakes or pancakes, and coffee were the usual breakfast. Fresh milk was available from the dairy cows that some families brought along, and pioneers took advantage go the rough rides of the wagon to churn their butter.

What did they eat for breakfast in the 1500s? ›

People in that time would eat basic foods such as bread, meats, and cheese. Some cultures even had beer or wine as the drinks.

Did people eat 3 meals a day in the 1800s? ›

By the late 18th Century most people were eating three meals a day in towns and cities, says Day. By the early 19th Century dinner for most people had been pushed into the evenings, after work when they returned home for a full meal. Many people, however, retained the traditional "dinner hour" on a Sunday.

What did they eat in the 1800s in America? ›

Eggs, milk and butter were sometimes available as some settlers kept cattle and chicken, but the most consistent staples were corn bread made with coarse meal, wild game and "rusty pork".

What was a typical meal in the 1800's? ›

Generally speaking, I can tell you that the American cuisine was heavy on meat, but full of local fruits, nuts, and vegetables, too. Beer and Ale were common drinks. One of the attractions of the Americas is that people were so well fed. The diet was pretty fatty, but low on sugar and salt since that was hard to get.

What did normal people eat in the 1800s? ›

Up until the late 1800s, people preferred to eat the foods that filled them up. Dairy, meat, hominy, oatmeal and sugar were staples — vegetables, not so much. Vitamins wouldn't be fully appreciated until the 20th century.

What did humans eat in the 1700s? ›

During the 1700s, meals typically included pork, beef, lamb, fish, shellfish, chicken, corn, beans and vegetables, fruits, and numerous baked goods. Corn, pork, and beef were staples in most lower and middle class households.

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