18th and 19th Century Foodways in North America

Interior of the detached kitchen…preserved at Whitney Plantation…St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. Credit:
Library of Congress control number 2021755922


Characters in novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries have to eat, so historical novelists may want to do research on foodways of that era.   I’ll limit this list to North America, due to a wealth of material, and cover UK and Australia at a later date. (I covered ancient and medieval/Renaissance foodways in previous articles.)  Many of the books have bibliographies for further research.


BOUND TO THE FIRE: HOW VIRGINIA’S ENSLAVED COOKS HELPED INVENT AMERICAN CUISINE, by Kelley Fanto Deetz.  University Press of Kentucky, 2017.  9780813174730

“It is by no means an exhaustive study of every enslaved cook and plantation kitchen in Virginia.  It is, however, an attempt to render their stories and to situate them in a place of importance…”—p.6-7.

CHINESE ON THE AMERICAN FRONTIER, edited by Arif Dirlik.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.  0847685322

Use the index to look for “food” and “cooking” to find the sections that cover Chinese foodways on the frontier.  You can find passages describing whites’ reaction to Chinese food, including a section on what Mark Twain had to say on the subject.

CHOW CHOP SUEY: FOOD AND THE CHINESE AMERICAN JOURNEY, by Anne Mendelson.  Columbia University Press, 2016.  9780231158602

The first 4 chapters cover the 18th through early 20th centuries, describing conditions in China which led to the influx of Chinese laborers in the California gold fields and the foodways they brought with them.

[Four gentlemen, sitting at a table in the outdoors, enjoying food and drinks], 1892. Credit:
Library of Congress control number 2018694568

DINING IN AMERICA: 1850-1900, edited by Kathryn Grover.  University of Massachusetts Press/Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, 1987.  0870235737

A collection of essays on late 1800s cookbooks, Victorian table manners, the use of silver in dining services, and related topics.

EATING IN AMERICA: A HISTORY, by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemong.  Ecco Press, 1995.  (originally published 1976) 0880013990

This covers all eras, but you will find 18th and 19th century information in the chapters in the approximate first half of the book.

St. Nicholas Restaurant. Shell oysters received daily by express, c1873. Credit:
Library of Congress control number


A reprint of the 1894 classic cookbook from a former chef at Delmonico’s in New York.  Besides the recipes, the book contains instructions on proper table service, types of wines to serve with which foods, and a table of food supplies listing when they were in season.  Novelists writing about the wealthy New Yorkers’ society in the Gilded Age will find material here.

AN ETHNOBIOLOGY SOURCE BOOK: THE USES OF PLANTS AND ANIMALS BY AMERICAN INDIANS, edited by Richard I. Ford.  Garland Publishing, 1986.  0824058941

Excerpts from period sources about the foodways of Native Americans, over half of which were written in the nineteenth century.  Examples: “Some Chippewa Uses of Plants,” and “Drink Plants of the North American Indians.”

FOOD IN THE AMERICAN GILDED AGE, edited by Helen Zoe Veit.  Michigan State University Press, 2017.  9781611862355

Includes selections from period cookbooks, etiquette manuals, and 1890s dietary studies.  Novelists setting a scene at a fancy Victorian dinner will find the examples of banquet menus helpful.

FOOD IN THE CIVIL WAR ERA: THE NORTH, edited by Helen Zoe Veit.  Michigan State University Press, 2014.  9781611861228

“Excerpts from five cookbooks from the Civil War era present a compelling portrait of cooking and eating in the urban North of the 1860s United States.”—p.34.

Campaign sketches: The coffee call, 1863, by Winslow Homer. Credit:
Library of Congress
control number 2013650297

FOOD IN THE CIVIL WAR ERA: THE SOUTH, edited by Helen Zoe Veit.  Michigan State University Press, 2015.  9781611861648

Provides excerpts from 19th century Southern sources such as published cookbooks and periodicals.  “These sources provide an unusually rich picture of Southern cooking and eating in the Civil War era”—p. 32.  Includes wartime shortages, such as ways to preserve meat without salt, substituting ground acorns for coffee, and using charcoal to clean the teeth.

FOOD IN THE GILDED AGE: WHAT ORDINARY AMERICANS ATE, by Robert Dirks.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.  9781442245136

The author uses late 19th century dietary studies to examine the foodways of turn-of-the-century Appalachia, of African Americans, and immigrants, and the differences between rich and poor people’s food habits.

FOOD IN THE UNITED STATES, 1820s-1890, by Susan Williams.  Greenwood Press, 2006.  0313332452

“What foods did nineteenth-century Americans eat? How and why did those foodways change over time?  How did they vary from region to region, class to class?”—introduction.   Chapters cover the availability of various foodstuffs, how they were prepared, regional variations, eating habits, and period ideas about nutrition.

GETTING WHAT WE NEED OURSELVES: HOW FOOD HAS SHAPED AFRICAN AMERICAN LIFE, by Jennifer Jensen Wallach.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.  9781442253902

The first three chapters cover African American foodways through the 19th century.   The book’s aim is to “examine African roots while also emphasizing the routes along which these customs traveled and the transformations what happened along the way”—introduction.

HIGH ON THE HOG: A CULINARY JOURNEY FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA, by Jessica B. Harris.  Bloomsbury, 2011.  9781596913950

Maya Angelou’s foreword states: “Harris has chosen African cookery and tracked its influence to the United States, to South America, and to the Caribbean.  She shows explicitly how the culinary efforts changed the mores and cultures and people in each place.”

American prize fruit with basket, 1867. Credit:
Library of Congress control number

HOW AMERICA EATS: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF U.S. FOOD CULTURE, by Jennifer Jensen Wallach.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.  9781442208742

This is a book to dip into, as material about the 18th-19th centuries is found in multiple chapters of the general history of American foodways.

INDIAN CORN OF THE AMERICAS: GIFT TO THE WORLD, edited by José Barreiro.  American Indian Program, Cornell University, 1989.

This is the spring/summer 1989 issue of Northeast Indian Quarterly.  Articles cover maize cultivation among the Iroquois, the Three Sisters practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together, and cultural meanings of corn.

LEARNING TO COOK IN 1898: A CHICAGO CULINARY MEMOIR, by Ellen F. Steinberg.  Wayne State University Press, 2007.  9780814333648

Steinberg discovered a handwritten cookbook by a middle-class young lady, who documented her progress in learning to cook.  Reproduces her adapted recipes along with social commentary, like fish availability in Chicago, what canned goods and appliances were available in 1898, and cookery for the sick.

MARTHA WASHINGTON’S BOOKE OF COOKERY, transcribed by Karen Hess.  Columbia University Press, 1981.  0231049307

Recipes taken and interpreted from a manuscript cookbook that was in the possession of Martha Washington.  Hess traces the recipes’ English ancestry and offers tips on trying to recreate some of the recipes today.

NATIVE HARVESTS: RECIPES AND BOTANICALS OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN, by Barrie Kavasch.  Vintage Books, 1979.  0394728114

Has a lot of recipes, but they are interspersed with botanical lore, like how ferns and bracken were uses as food, what botanicals were used as beverages, and smoking techniques.

NO USELESS MOUTH: WAGING WAR AND FIGHTING HUNGER IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, by Rachel B. Herrmann.  Cornell University Press 2019.  9781501716119

The author examines hunger as a weapon in the time of the American Revolution, specifically food diplomacy, victual warfare, and victual imperialism.

THE PIONEER COOK: A HISTORICAL VIEW OF CANADIAN PRAIRIE FOOD, by Beulah M. Barss.  Detselig Enterprises, 1980.  0920490115

“Traces the development of food patterns through the fur trade and homestead era prior to 1914”—introduction.  Discusses how food was stored, using buffalo chips as fuel, and has a selection of recipes.

PLANET TACO: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF MEXICAN FOOD, by Jeffrey M. Pilcher.  Oxford, 2012.  9780199740062

“This book tells the story of how a particular idea of authentic Mexican food was invented in the global marketplace by promoters of culinary tourism…”—preface.  The first few chapters cover up to the nineteenth century.

PIGS, PORK AND HEARTLAND HOGS: FROM WILD BOAR TO BACONFEST, by Cynthia Clampitt.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.  9781538110744

Chapters 4-6 are most relevant to our time period.  They discuss the role of the pig in U.S. history, with emphasis on the Midwest.


The author, formerly of the Mystic Seaport Museum, provides social history and recipes for foods associated with New England.  Well-illustrated.

The best wines, liquors, ales & lager beer, we are selling here, 1871. Credit:
Library of Congress control number 93506842

SAVORY SUPPERS AND FASHIONABLE FEASTS: DINING IN VICTORIAN AMERICA, by Susan Williams.  University of Tennessee Press, 1996.  0870499122

“What dining was like in Victorian America: what kinds of foods people ate; how, when, and where they ate them, and why.”—preface.  It concentrates on the middle classes.

TASTE OF THE STATES: A FOOD HISTORY OF AMERICA, by Hilde Gabriel Lee.  Howell Press, 1992. 0943231566

Gives brief information on each state, grouped by region, noting foodways peculiar to that area, with selected recipes.

THE VIRGINIA HOUSEWIFE, OR METHODICAL COOK, by Mary Randolph.  Dover Publications, 1993.  0486277720

A facsimile edition of what is considered the first truly American and first Southern cookbook, published in 1824.  If your character needs to make catfish soup or jelly from calves’ feet, this will help you set the scene.  I was surprised to find recipes listed for “foreign” dishes like gazpacho, ropa vieja, and polenta.


The authors used the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s documents to research American slave foodways.  Chapters include slave nutrition, cooking methods, and African roots.

WHAT’S TO EAT?: ENTREES IN CANADIAN FOOD HISTORY, edited by Nathalie Cooke.  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.  9780773535701

A collection of essays by different authors on “distinctive elements of Canadian domestic foodways…”—introduction.  Chapters include: aboriginal food, chocolate in Canada, turkey as a Thanksgiving item, etc.


Colonial Foodways (Colonial Williamsburg)

What did people eat in the 1700s?  (University of Maryland, Baltimore)

Fast food in Colonial America (Penn State University)

A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Cook in 1799 (Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association)

Maintaining Traditions: Food and Identity among Early Immigrants to Upper Canada (National Library of Medicine, U.S.)

Historical Recipes (Old Sturbridge Village)

How Enslaved Chefs Helped Shape American Cuisine (Smithsonian Magazine)


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.




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