Chow Time in the 1800s by Krista Ames
Have you ever wondered how people did it in the old days?
How did they store food to keep things good long enough to eat? How did they cook?
In this day and age, we are all spoiled with refrigerators and freezers to keep our food cold or frozen and stoves and ovens or microwaves and grills to cook our food.
What do you think it would be like to live on and run your own farm providing for your daily living essentials? The basis of food was pretty similar in the 1800's to what it is now, only the preservation and preparation have changed with time.
Today our meals are planned around the family’s schedule, but it didn't work that way two hundred years ago. In fact, two hundred years ago, families planned their schedule around meals!
During the early 1800s, cooking dominated the time and energy of the average housewife. There were no big grocery stores where families could go to purchase food, and eating out was truly a rare treat, usually possible only when traveling. Most fruits and vegetables were grown on the farmstead, and families processed meats such as poultry, beef, and pork along with wild game.
People were basically forced into seasonal diets. In the spring and summer months, they ate many more fruits and vegetables than they did in the fall and winter. During those colder seasons, families found ways to preserve their food.
Often vegetables were preserved by stringing them up to hang by the fireplace or in another warm, dry area to remove moisture. To prepare the vegetables for eating, people would soak them in water for a while. Beans prepared in this way were called “leather britches” because of their toughness after drying. Fruits, pumpkin, squash, and other foods could be kept in this way for months at a time.
Most homesteads years ago had a root cellar, where families kept food in a cool, dry environment. They stored apples and other foods in piles of sawdust or in containers filled with sawdust or similar loose material.
One method rarely used today for preserving root crops such as potatoes and turnips was called “holing in.”
People would dig a pit that was lined with sawdust or straw, place the items in the pit, and cover it with more sawdust or straw. Finally, they would place boards, tin, or a similar material on top.
Before refrigerators, the spring house was a fixture around some homesteads, providing a place to keep milk, butter, and other perishables from spoiling. Running spring water kept temperatures cool enough to preserve foods even on hot summer days. The “house” was a wooden structure with a roof built directly over the spring. It protected the food from animals and severe weather.
In earlier days, people simply kept foods down in the water itself. Items like butter also might be kept down a well.
By the mid-1800s, a method of refrigeration had taken shape that seems rather crude when compared with today. People would dig ice houses into dirt banks in areas deprived of sunlight, line them with sawdust, and fill them with blocks of ice cut from frozen rivers and creeks. With proper care, the ice would last until summer.
The three main ways of curing (the process of preserving food) during this time period included drying, smoking, and salting. Each method drew moisture out of foods to prevent spoiling. Fruits and vegetables could be dried by being placed out in the sun or near a heat source.
Meat products could be preserved through salting or smoking. A salt cure involved rubbing salt into the meat, which was then completely covered in salt and placed in a cool area for at least twenty-eight days. During this time, more salt was constantly added. When the meat was no longer damp, it was washed, then shelved or bagged and left to age. Families would hang meat preserved through a smoke cure in rooms or buildings with fire pits. For a month, the meat was constantly exposed to smoke, which dried it out while adding flavor. Using different kinds of wood for the fire, such as hickory or oak, could produce different tastes.
A typical day on the farm would begin very early. Women built the fire based on the meals planned for that day. The kitchen often was hot, smoky, and smelly and the hearth provided the center of home life and family activity. With no ovens or electricity, women prepared meals on the hearths of brick fireplaces. They used different types of fires and flames to prepare different types of food. For example, a controllable fire was used to roast and toast, while boiling and stewing required a smaller flame.
To use all of the fire’s energy, families shoveled coals and ash underneath and onto the lids of Dutch ovens. Standing on three legs and available in a wide array of sizes, the cast-iron Dutch oven was one of the most important tools found on the hearth. It was used to prepare several types of food and allowed cooking from both the top and the bottom. Dutch ovens evolved into woodstoves, common in homes of the later 1800s and early 1900s before most people got electricity at home.
Preparing meals was not just a matter of starting a fire for cooking. Spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and seasonings, like salt and pepper, had to be ground up with mortars and pestles. Milk had to be brought in from the family dairy cow and cream and butter made from it. After someone brought in the milk, it usually sat out for about an hour. The cream rose to the top, separating from the milk. Women placed this cream into a butter churn and beat it until it hardened, first into whipped cream and eventually into butter!
Every family member contributed to the production and preparation of meals. Men and boys spent most of their time outdoors. Chores included working crops in the fields, feeding larger livestock, and hunting. Diets included wild game, such as deer and turkeys. Women and girls worked mainly in the kitchen and fed smaller livestock.
Clearly, meal preparation two hundred years ago involved several more steps than it does now. Much like today, families usually ate three daily meals. The main meal in the 1800s, however, was not the large evening meal that is familiar to us today. Rather, it was a meal called dinner, enjoyed in the early afternoon. Supper was a smaller meal eaten in the evening.
A big difference between the way people eat today compared with long ago is the work and time needed. Two hundred years ago, food and food preparation stood at the center of the family’s daily lifestyle. Without the advances in technology that help us store, preserve, and prepare food, men and women would spend much of their time getting meals ready to eat.
Sounds tiring doesn't it? Or refreshing, rewarding?
I think i'd jump at the chance to at least try it :)