Mealtimes were family times for our ancestors. Around the table, parents and children shared their day’s activities and discussed the events happening in the world. Food brought everyone together. There was always a seat at the table for friends and neighbors. Women prided themselves on a well-served meal. How did our ancestors acquire and prepare their food? What did they eat? How did they preserve food for the winter months? Learning about the foodways of our ancestors helps us to understand the fabric of their lives.
Resources on the Internet
The websites presented here are just a sampling of what can be found on the Internet to help you learn about the food your ancestors ate. Use these website examples as a guide to customize searches for your specific research goal.
The Food Timeline: The evolution of the foods we eat is depicted in timeline format.
Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project: An online collection of some of the most influential and important American cookbooks from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century.
Foodways during the Depression: Farming in the 1930s: The Wessels Living History Farm provides a nice overview of foodways during the depression from a farm’s perspective.
Frontier Foodways: Early frontier cooking from the trail to California.
Household Appliances Timeline: The invention of electricty led to electric stoves, washers, dryers, and dishwashers. In the second half of the twentieth century, advances in electronics yielded appliances that could be set on timers and even programmed, further reducing the domestic workload by allowing washing and cooking to go on without the presence of the human launderer or cook.
Historic Cookery: A blog about 18th and 19th century foodways written by a culinary historian and hearth cook.
Historic Recipes from Old Sturbridge Village: Select recipes from the historic Old Sturbridge Village.
Research Questions to Consider
What types of utensils did they use?
What was their usual fare for breakfast? Lunch? Dinner?
Did they grow their own food or buy it at a market?
Did they put up food by canning, freezing, or pickling?
What were markets like in their town?
What types of food did they eat?
Did they cook in a fireplace or on a stove?
Did they have a cook or housemaid to do the cooking?
Did the family eat at the kitchen table or dining room table?
Did the husband hunt to feed his family?
Who prepared the food? Did they use a fireplace or stove?
Did they raise animals for the purpose of providing food?
What was a typical family dinner?
Bibliography of Food History Books
Learning about the foodways of our ancestors can help us to understand a part of their daily lives. This bibliography offers a sampling of the many books that offer recipes as well as stories about how our ancestors fed their families. Many of these books are available at your local library, favorite bookseller, or online at Amazon.com.
Gdula, Steven. The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home. Bloomsbury USA, 2007. ISBN 1582343551. This book takes the reader, decade by decade, through the evolution of the domestic kitchen from colonial times until the twentieth century.
Howard, Judy. 1905 Cookbook: Food for Body and Soul. Dorcas Publishing, 2011. ISBN 0976237549. More than just recipes, this book provides a glimpse into the lives of homesteaders in Oklahoma before it became a state. Vintage photos and period advertisements help to set the tone for this unique slice of American history.
Kander, Simon and Henry Schoenfeld. The Settlement Cook Book 1903. Dover Publications, 2005. ISBN 0486443493. This book was originally created as a cooking and homemaking primer for newly arrived immigrants. It is a back-to-basics book filled with hundreds of recipes that gives a taste of kitchens of yesteryear.
Pelton, Robert W. Historical Thanksgiving Cooking and Baking: A Unique Collection of Thanksgiving Recipes from the Time of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. ISBN 1460995996. Original recipes from early cookbooks that have been updated for use in today’s kitchens.
Schenone, Laura. A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. ISBN 0393326276. As the title suggests, this book celebrates the lives of American women through recipes and remembrances.
Spaulding, Lily May. Civil War Recipes: Receipts from the Pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book. The University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ISBN 0813120829. Godey’s Lady’s Book was the most popular magazine for women in the nineteenth century. These recipes are drawn from those pages.
Staib, Walter. The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine. Running Press, 2009. ISBN 0762434171. More than 300 recipes and full-color photography share recipes made at taverns in the late eighteenth century.
Swell, Barbara. Log Cabin Cooking: Pioneer Recipes & Food Lore. Native Ground Music, 2008. ISBN 1883206251. Old time recipes, kitchen proverbs, and authentic nineteenth-century photographs create a cookbook that shares cooking and food from early America.
Swell, Barbara. Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking: Rural America Recipes & Farm Lore. Native Ground Music, 2003. ISBN 1883206413. Recipes, stories, advice, farm lore, and illustrations collected from a wide variety of American agricultural sources from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Theobald, Mary Miley. Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1984. ISBN 0879351063. Authentic eighteenth-century recipes that have been adapted to modern day kitchens.
Van Amber Paske, Janet. Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and More From Your Kitchen Today, Volume 1. Van Amber Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0961966319. Comforting recipes and heartwarming stories contributed by survivors of the Great Depression.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. ISBN 1442208740. This book offers a slice of American history by way of the dinner table by studying what Americans have been eating since the colonial era.
Wenger, Shaunda Kennedy. From Rivets and Rails: Recipes of a Railroad Boarding House Cookbook. Essemkay Company Productions, 2012. ISBN 0615730426. Based on a cookery journal of Elizabeth Shade Kennedy, this book offers a glimpse into early kitchens during the late 1800s through recipes and anecdotal notes.
Williams, Susan. Food in the United States: 1820s-1890. Greenwood Press, 2006. ISBN 0313332452. This book talks about inventions, new trends, and the growth of the American food culture from 1820 to 1890.