Colonial And Early American

Food of the Revolutionary War Time Period

Pamela Kay's image for:
"Food of the Revolutionary War Time Period"
Image by: 

Calf head soup!?! With a few exceptions, such as this one, the food of the Revolutionary War time period was much the same as Americans enjoy today, though the preservation and preparation was very different. Everything was used; nothing was wasted. calf-head soup recipe is listed at the end of the article and is still eaten today.

This was long before refrigeration was invented to keep foods fresh. Neither were there trains to transport fresh produce from a non-existent California, to the eastern states. Providing and preparing food for the table occupied most of a family's time and was hard work for few food items were bought at a store.

Their diets changed with the seasons and each change was eagerly welcomed. Spring brought the first fresh greens they had eaten in many months. Early crops that had been planted in the fall bore their fruits, such as green onions, sugar peas, kale and other greens and early strawberries.

Summer fare was good in this era, as fresh produce was plentiful and eaten at each meal. Salt, drying and canning were used to preserve as much as possible to last through the winter months. When boys were done with chores, they spent time on riverbanks catching fish for supper. What was not eaten was smoked or dried for winter.

Winter offered little in the way of fresh produce and the only fresh meat was wild game. The meals consisted of dried, salt cured or canned foods. Beans and root crops played a large role in these meals.

Fall was the time of abundance. Fruits trees bore apples, peaches and pears and in the woods were nuts to be gathered. Wild game was at its fattest in the fall. The larders were full and the last of the crops were being gathered in.


America was full of huge forests and pristine waterways, where fish and wild game were plentiful. There were no hunting restrictions at this time and when a man wanted fresh meat, he just went out and shot it, carried it home, butchered it and salted down or smoked what could not be eaten before it spoiled.

Deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, bear, wild boars, porcupines and raccoons were easily tracked and bagged. The air was full of fowl and the rivers and streams were teeming with fish, turtle and crayfish just waiting on a baited hook, while the seacoast offered mussels, clams, shrimp and other shellfish. Nothing was wasted when a kill was made, life was hard and winter was always in the back of their minds.

Those wealthy enough to own pigs, sheep, goats, oxen, cows or turkeys, chickens and ducks, carefully guarded and cared for their animals and prayed for them to reproduce.
For the most part, they did not butcher a cow, sheep or goat often, because in addition to producing more offspring and providing meat, they might also provide:

Milk for drinking, baking, buttermilk and making cheese and butter.
Hides for making clothing, shoes, boots, saddles and other items.
Wool for warm socks and clothing.
Rennet from the stomach to make cheese.

Chickens, turkeys and ducks gave them more variety in their diet as well as down for pillows and mattresses. Most laying hens were very old before they ever appeared on the table as fried chicken, because an egg was produced everyday and fried chicken was only for one meal.

As soon as cold weather arrived, a hog was butchered and salted down. The hams and great slabs of bacon and ribs were hung in smokehouses where they cured. The head was boiled and made into headcheese and the tail was roasted on a stick for some lucky child.

The feet were pickled and the bits and pieces were mixed with herbs such as sage and pepper and stuffed into the pigs intestines as sausage. The fat was rendered into lard, which was used for lighting, soap making and cooking. From top to bottom and head to tail, the whole pig was used. Only the entrails and bones were discarded.

*Vegetables and Fruits

Each house had its own kitchen garden from which the family ate all summer and canned, dried and pickled for the winter months. Few had canning jars and most of the produce was dried or pickled in large barrels. Root crops were the main source of food for the winter because they kept well in cool root cellars.

These included potatoes, peanuts, carrots, rutabaga, turnips, beets, parsnips, yams and horseradish to name a few. Apples, pumpkins, cabbages and hard-skinned squashes were also stored in the root cellar as were nuts gathered from the woods in the fall.

Many kinds of beans were shelled, dried and stored in large sacks, as were various kinds of peas. Corn was dried and removed from the cob and ground for meal or mixed with green beans and pickled. Apples, plums and peaches were also dried.

Garlic and onions were braided in long ropes and hung to dry. Peppers were strung with needle and thread and hung to dry. Tomatoes were dried and later reconstituted in the stew pot. Even the green beans were strung and dried, which gave them a leathery texture when they were later cooked and gave them the name of leather johns.

*Sweeteners and Seasonings

Every cook used herbs and spices to add flavor to her meals. While, the average American cook today has a general knowledge of about twenty herbs and spices, the women of the late 1700's had an immense knowledge of about seventy herbs and spices, which they used for flavor, preserving and medicinal purposes.

Table sugar, as we know it, was expensive and hard to obtain. Drinks and desserts were sweetened with molasses, maple sugar, brown sugar, honey and sorghum. Most sweeteners were derived from sugar cane and sugar beets, which were grown for this purpose.

*The following recipe is from a book written in 1845 by Ann Allen entitled, "The Housekeepers Assistant."

Calf's Head Soup.-Take a calf's head, wash it clean, stew it with a bunch of sweet herbs, an onion stuck with cloves, mace, pearl barley, and Jamaica pepper; when it is very tender, put to it some stewed celery; season it with pepper; and serve it with the head in the middle.

This article is written about the average household during the Revolutionary War time period. The wealthier population enjoyed chocolate, ice cream and other treats, which we take for granted today. They had no modern conveniences or instant meals, but despite this, they turned out delicious meals and fed a great nation through a hard and trying time.

More about this author: Pamela Kay

From Around the Web