History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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FOODS OF THE EARLY TAVERN AND HOUSEHOLD

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

It's food too fine for angels; yet come, take
And eat thy fill! It's Heaven's sugar cake.
Edward Taylor

 

     Tavern meals were taken up with such speed that foreigner were actually astonished. The slang of the period was one of the three "G's:" "Gobble, gulp and go." One guest was puzzled over the haste, hustle and starving attitude the inn frequenter displayed. Everyone stuffed himself at uncanny speeds. Another visitor was amazed that in barely twenty minutes, he had witnessed two series of meals in his hotel.

     Visitors from the home-land were astounded at the size of the American meal. A standard breakfast consisted of oatmeal or cornmeal mash; soft-boiled eggs; a meat dish, which consisted of steak, lamb or veal chops, or sausages; accompanied with potatoes, cheese, bread or crackers with butter; and occasionally buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup; beverages included coffee or tea.

     Dinner or supper consisted of a an ample supply of soup; red or white meat served with potatoes, corn green beans, cabbage, or beets. Chicken, jellies and jams, along with puddings and pies were also provided. Salads came along later. The main raw vegetables were lettuce or dandelion greens seasoned with sugar and vinegar.

     Henry Howe was the foremost historian in early Ohio. He recorded his happenings in a two-book set entitled, "Historical Collections of Ohio." He made two tours of Ohio, forty years apart.

     In 1886, while on his second tour, he found himself in the old fashioned looking city of Steubenville. Finding haven in a cheap restaurant, he found that the variety of foods placed before him consisted of nineteen dishes. Ohio grown and very tender roast beef was the main course. Excellent coffee, cold bread and butter, warm biscuits, potatoes warmed in milk, corn, stringed beans, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes stewed with toast, rhubarb, asparagus in milk, boiled cabbage, rhubarb pie, cherry pie, ice cream, chocolate and strawberries, all for 25 cents.

     Howe exclaims that "On my tour of Ohio forty years ago no such variety was anywhere seen, and not once a napkin at a meal, and eatable butter almost never. In no one thing has there been a greater improvement than in food."

 

Corn and Maize

     Corn, or maize, originally cultivated and raised by the American Indians, was without a doubt, a genuine American dish. Among the first things the colonists did was to plant a patch of corn and pray for a harvest that would parlay into a crop of the yellow-grained nutrient that would supplement his diet of fish and game.

     As we travel through this glorious land of ours, we see the tall, golden stalks of precious grain; it is not thought upon that this product was the fundamental food- stuff of the pioneer. Corn could be planted and harvested in five months, compared to that of wheat, which took twice as long to develop, the latter producing a much smaller percentage.

     The following is a colorful description of the greatest food-source known to modern man, corn. It was written by Josiah Morrow in the early Twentieth Century for The Western Star of Lebanon.

     "Indian corn is the one food plant indigenous to the new world, and in its gift we have received from American aboriginal agriculture the most important food plant in the world. In the number of farms in which it may be used as food, the abundance of its yield and the variety of climates in which it may be grown, it excels the date of Egypt, the rice of China and any of the cereals of the old world. It is not only the most useful, but the most beautiful grain plant, and as it is of American origin. A stalk of maize might well have been placed on the seal of the United States rather than any wild bird or beast, a fitting recognition of agriculture as the basis of national wealth."

     James Smith, long a prisoner among the Indians of Ohio, in describing the foods of the red men, mentions "green corn dried," but there is no reason to believe that this method of preserving the greatest delicacy of the Indians' diet, was followed to any considerable extent either by the native tribes or the early white settlers.

     Another pioneer recollected an ordeal in which the Indian meal played a part in his life. He relates:

     "My father's family was small and he took us all with him to the wilderness. The Indian meal which he brought was expended six weeks too soon, so for that time we had to live without bread.

     "The lean venison and the breast of wild turkey we were taught to call bread. I remember how narrowly we children watched the potato tops, pumpkin and squash vines, hoping from day to day to get something in place of bread. How delicious was the taste of the young potatoes when we got them! What a jubilee when we were permitted to pull the young corn for roasting ears! Still more when it acquired hardness to be made into johnnycake cakes by the aid of a tin grater."

 

Hominy Block

     An account of the earliest means to reduce corn to corn meal was that a section of an oak or gum tree trunk, four feet in length and two feet in diameter, was provided for a rude mortar. It was burned out at one end to a depth of 18 or 20 inches. Into this container a portion of grist was placed and beaten with a stick of wood that served as a pestle. When adequately pounded the meal was then sifted and deemed ready to be made into bread. This was called a hominy block. Hominy blocks did not last long, for mills came quite early and superseded them. Yet these mills were so far apart that in stormy weather, or want of transportation, the pioneer was compelled to resort to his hominy block, or go without bread.

     Sometimes this block was placed inside the cabin where it served as a seat for the bashfull or young buckskinned backwoodsman while sparking his girl. Sometimes a convenient stump in front of the cabin door was prepared for, and made one of the best of hominy blocks. "Hog and hominy" was the natural relationship between pork and beaten corn.

     The primitive grist mill was nothing more than a "corn cracker," but they were an improvement over the hominy block. Grinding the corn was their main function, moreover the pioneer must do his own bolting.

     A wire sieve was one of the most functional articles of the household. It always hung on a hook, or a wooden peg, where it could be reached by the family. Through this, the meal was sifted and the finest used for bread.

     "Indian pone" was baked in a large deep skillet that was placed upon hot coals raked from the fireplace to the hearth. Fresh coals were continually placed under it and upon the iron lid until the loaf, five or six inches thick, was thoroughly done. This was prepared different than the "johnney-cake", for it was better and could not always be had. For the taster's delight, a little wheat flour was needed, this a rare food source in those early days.

     An access road had to be cut through the forest to the mill. Also, a wagon for hauling the grist proved advantageous. This four-wheeled vehicle was a delight for the children of a neighborhood.

     It not only served the family, but it served as a mode of transportation for the whole neighborhood, as it was used for milling purposes. About once a month, this good neighbor, because of his ability to own a wagon, would gather up the grists and take them to mill, often spending several days in the operation, never thinking to charge for his time and trouble.

 

The Trammel and Hooks

     The trammel and hooks were found among the well-to-do families. Previous to this, the lug-pole, across the inside of the chimney, about even with the chamber floor, answered for a trammel.

     A chain was suspended from it, and hooks were attached, and from this hung the mush-pot or tea kettle. If a chain was not available, a wooden hook was in reach of the poorest and humblest numbers.

     When a meal was not in preparation, and the hook was endangered by the fire, it was forced aside to one end of the lug-pole for safety.

     Iron ware was scarce in those days. Instances are related where the one pot served at a meal to boil water for mint tea or crust coffee, to bake the bread, boil the potatoes, and fry the meat; by precise management this was accomplished. Frequently the kettle had no lid, and a flat stone, heated, and handled with the tongs, was used instead of one, when a loaf or pone or pumpkin pie was baked.

     A shortcake could be baked by heating the kettle somewhat, putting in the cake, and tipping it up sideways before the glowing fire. Bannock, or board-cake was made by mixing the cornmeal up with warm water, a pinch of salt and a trifle of lard, into a thick dough, spreading it on a clean, sweet-smelling clapboard, thence patting it with the cleanest of hands, and standing it slanting before the fire. It was then propped into the right position by a flat-iron behind it. Baked quickly, this made a delicious cake.

 

Pioneer Whiskey

     Copper-still whiskey was, next to water, the drink of the pioneers. Consumed by everyone, it was supposed to be indispensable to health, strength and endurance during the labors of the day, and a liquid sleep-aid during the night. It would also be absolutely indispensable to warmth and animation in cold, chilly winter weather. It was the sacrament of friendship and hospitality. It was universally used, yet the drunkenness of the pioneer was probably less in those days than today.

     The whiskey was unequivocally pure, for it was not drugged, doctored and poisoned, although enough of it would bring drunkenness, it did not bring hallucinating tremors, nor leave the system oppressive, nor would the subject be left with a headache upon sobering-up.

     As an article of commerce, it was the first thing in demand. Manufacturing stills sprang up everywhere along the streams. Pioneers instantly found a market at the stills for their corn; hence corn became the great crop and whiskey the object of commerce.

     Money was a paying practice from the sale of whiskey from which the operator must have to pay his taxes. Whiskey prices ran from twelve to fifteen cents per gallon and could be paid for in corn. A barrel of whiskey in the cellar was just as common as a barrel of cider was later.

     Whiskey that was not consumed at home was shipped on flatboats or pirogues (a canoe dug out of a log, or two canoes lashed together) from neighboring water-ways, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans and sold for Spanish gold.

     After disposing of their whiskey in New Orleans, the hardy pioneers would often set out on foot for home, a distance of several hundred miles.

     A general comparison of the great springs of yesteryear and their thoroughly satisfying waters, and the early whiskey trials and habits, is that the latter often caused many family problems, as it still does today.

 

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