How Food in 1836 Tells Stories that History Books Cannot by Heather Roselle

 Can you smell the hearth smoke in the air? Notice the scents of seasoned cast iron rising from the fire with aromas of sage, thyme, and rosemary; fresh-chopped garlic and cracked black pepper. Garden vegetables roasted in the fire, served on a bed of wild grains; hand-made with love and served on the worn dishware that has been in your family for generations. To an iron-worker at Allaire, cooking is a labor of love. It is, although a necessity, a day-long process that falls into the hands of the strong matriarch, who likely had the process down to a science. In 1836, cooking was not just following a recipe. It was, rather, a means by which a family’s entire lineage and genealogy could be traced into both the past and the future, a net that could capture pearls of family history from an entire ocean. 

When you think of historic meals, your mind is likely to procure an image of a gluttonous mutton chop, or maybe a modest baked potato. In reality, in a company town like Allaire, families likely relied on good food as a means of restoring their energy from a long day of work. Residents relied on whatever they could grow in their personal gardens or purchase at the general store in order to create the dishes that were culturally significant to them. Of the 400 some-odd people who lived and worked here at Allaire Village, the majority immigrated to the United States from Germany, Ireland, and several other European countries. This means that, although villagers were somewhat limited in the types of ingredients they could grow or purchase, the dishes made here were likely heavily influenced by traditional dishes of Germany and Ireland. 

Some dishes, like the german Kartoffelpuffer or “Potato Pancake,” could be easily replicated, being only potatoes, onion, and an egg. However, specific types of Irish or German sausage might have to be modified because of cost and availability of certain meats. After all, a labor-rights book from 1833 declares that a family of three in Philadelphia “whose sole dependence for subsistence is on the labor of their hands” utilized a mere $3.19 for weekly groceries. Working class families like those at Allaire relied on affordability to maintain an economic equilibrium, and although certain fruits might be available for purchase at the General Store, they were simply too expensive to buy. For example, an orange would have been a gift given at Christmastime, not egregiously juiced and de-pulped for a beverage. 

“Desperation is the mother of invention,” is a phrase I know I heard growing up as my grandmother scanned the pantry for ingredients, and it also applies to the logic of a cook in 1836. Regional dishes from Germany or Ireland became Americanized as local ingredients replaced those found in the original recipes. James P. Allaire purchased deeds to at least six farms adjacent to the village in order to ensure that villagers had plentiful access to meat, eggs, milk, fruit, and vegetables. The cheapest ingredients– flour, oats, rice, peas, hominy (a type of dried corn that is treated with alkali), and beans– would have been the backbone of most meals. However, combined with different regional ethnic influences, food was so much more than just sustenance. Food was, and is, a way to tell a story. 

Next time you sit down to eat, think about how far the ingredients on your plate have come from where they started. Think about the stories the dish tells– is it significant to you in any way? Chances are, the answer is yes. A villager in 1836 might have done the same!

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