While I was hoping to say that the 18th century beat the 21st century on food, after thinking it over, I’m unable to say that. Quite the opposite — I have to admit that I like most modern food better than fare from 18th century recipes I’ve tried so far, with a couple caveats.
3 Reasons Food is Better Today
Three things make food better today, generally:
- International food. Today you can get lots of yummy ethnic food from Vietnamese Pho to sushi, tacos, and pizza. Many of these foods from other countries have become so common they’re basically part of American cuisine.
- More vegetables. Much American food of the 18th century was inspired, to put it nicely, by British cookery. Enough said? Well, Popeye might have credited spinach for his strength but the son of Albion put his faith in the Roast Beef of Old England. While colonists’ preferred meat was pork, it was cooked in much the same style — Lots of stews and meat pies. I love eating that kind of food at City Tavern in Philadelphia or at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia. But it’s so heavy that a little bit goes a long way. On a regular basis, I much prefer a nouvelle cuisine plate with a bit of meat accompanied by sauteed green beans or carrots or a stir fry or curry that’s mostly vegetables with meat used sparingly just for flavor. Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, for the few vegetables they did cook, they boiled most of the flavor and vitamins out of them. Bummer.
- More spices. Long after European ships gained direct access to the East Indies, spices remained expensive in the Atlantic world. Salt and sugar had gotten more affordable by the 18th century, but spices we take for granted today were, like tea, still expensive enough to be kept under lock and key by the mistress of the house. Today, spices from far-flung locales such as turmeric, cloves and paprika can be found at most grocery stores for a few dollars a bottle. Of course, as the reenactor supply company Townsend likes to point out, back in the 18th century they sure had plenty of nutmeg. And I agree that’s a good thing.
What’s Better about 18th Century Food
So, overall, I’d chose today’s American food over the fare on offer in the colonies or early republic.
But there are two ways that modern cooks could learn from their 18th century counterparts:
- Portion size. Historians tell us that Americans did eat a lot of meat in the 18th century, even compared to people back in England. Visitors from across the Atlantic often noted that Americans were taller and generally better nourished than folks of similar class back home. Americans also ate lots of fat. And their main starch was corn. More physical work helped them burn off all those calories. But I can’t help but thinking that portion size was smaller back then too. Indeed, portion size has crept up at American restaurants in just the last 30 years. It’s probably the same in American home kitchens. To fight America’s weight problem, to cut food waste and to make us feel less bad about having to finish our plates, I’d urge a return to 18th century portion sizes, or even smaller.
- Wholesome ingredients. Say what you want about pork and onions in stews, pies and meat puddings. But two centuries before it was even a thing, you didn’t need to ask if food was organic and non-GMO. In the 18th century, that was the only kind of food there was.
Why 18th Century Taverns Still Beat Most 21st Century Restaurants
So, food is not clearly a winning area for the 18th century.
Sorry, all you colonial tavern fans. I wish it were different, because I love colonial taverns for lots of other reasons. Mainly the atmosphere and culture. They were places of much more authentic conviviality than today’s restaurants or bars, with music, gambling, business dealing, political debates and best of all, clever and meaningful toasts and rollicking drinking songs.
Taverns were an important place where patriots fomented revolution, as Adrian Covert writes in his super fun guide Taverns of the American Revolution: The Battles, Booze, and Barrooms of the Revolutionary War.
To get that tavern atmosphere today, I’d be willing to forego the sushi and vegetables and eat a lot more meat pies.
— Erik Curren, Everyday Reenactors