Corn Mother to Working Mother: American Food History

Living in a 150-year-old house, Laura Schenone began to look for the ghosts of women who had lived there before her.

Where had her root cellar been? Where was the wood pile for her stove? Had she preserved pears form this very tree, or baked apples from those across the way?  Had she pulled vegetables from this same soil?

I supposed I looked for her through food because that was the only aspect of her work and her life to which I could relate.  Like most women of my era, I had no interest in sewing, quilting, cleaning, laundering clothes, or raising seven or eight children. But cooking–that was different.

I hope by now you have discovered the page of Ancestors in Aprons where I introduce food and cooking books that are of interest to anyone who wants to understand their ancestors lives and American food history.  The short blurbs that I give you on that page, called Food Books that Stir Family Memoriesare not long enough to tell you all about some of the very best books on that list.

Laura Schenone‘s A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances, is definitely one of the best books I have read to explain American food history.

American Food History-Corn Maiden

Bean Pot with Corn Maidens, from Smithsonian American Art Museum

She starts with Native Americans, who paid tribute to the corn mother when they ground and cooked their corn. She gets us thinking about how the earliest pioneers had to set aside their English ways and adapt some of those Natives’ techniques, and how those transplanted Englishwomen used native American plants to create new versions of their old favorites.

In 1630, a woman published a packing list of food and implements for those setting sail for America, and other lists detailed the medicines the housewife should take along because she was expected to understand the use of botanicals for medicine just as much as she understood food and cooking.

There are so many places in this book where I thought, “OH! So THAT is what her life was like!”  By 1629, my pilgrim ancestors had planted apple trees and a few years later, they were making “Pippin Pie”, perhaps using a 1615 popular cookbook, The English Housewife, if they had been able to stow it in their luggage.

They would have tried to live up to that book’s ideal housewife:

Containing the inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household.

Slightly later, when my ancestors had moved to towns like Sudbury Massachusetts and into Boston, they had to know how to bargain with the merchants.

In the 1800’s, food became fraught with moral value as various food gurus urged them to be frugal, or to keep a Christian kitchen.

There is no more prolific,–indeed, there is no such prolific cause of bad morals as abuses of diet,–not merely by excessive drinking of injurious beverages, but excessive eating, and by eating unhealthful food.  From Christianity in the Kitchen by Mrs. Horace Mann
American Food History-Godey's

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1873. Used with creative commons license.

The Civil War affected the way women cooked and what foods were available–particularly in the South. And Godey’s Lady’s Book became a prime influence in their lives. In her chapter on industrialization, Shenone also points out the many industrial innovations that affected our food supply, and thus the way my great-grand aunts might have cooked. Condensed milk and refrigerated railroad cars were just two of those.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove follows our ancestors on the Westward trail and talks about what it was like to travel on a covered wagon.  The book explores the changes in cooking techniques when open hearth cooking gave way to iron stoves after the Civil War, and then to electric stoves around the turn of the 18th to 19th century. And when ice boxes were invented and then became refrigerators.

Part of American Food History shows us backtracking. The scientific approach was born and home economics taught women to be efficient. An unintended consequence of the prevalence of home economics teaching was a reliance on prepared food and a memory loss concerning older methods of cooking.  My mother, Harriette Anderson Kaser was a home economics teacher, and this section of the book helped me understand the kind of food we had on our table at home.

The author covers various ethnic groups, the Depression, the effect of World Wars and just about every nuance of American history–as it relates to food. And it ALL relates to food.

It is almost impossible to read a page of this book without gaining insight into the past. And Shenone presents the recipes our foremothers used, along with helpful tips on adapting them to more modern methods and tastes. Every major trend in the country is covered, from the Native Americans with their Corn Maiden to the modern working mother who relies on restaurants and microwave.

My only regret is that this book is now ten years old, and it would be wonderful to see another chapter on the more recent return (by at least a large portion of families) to using fresh, local raised foods and more imaginative approaches.

Note: There are links here to Amazon, which can help you purchase this book, or anything else you intend to buy at Amazon. While you’re shopping you’re helping Ancestors in Aprons pay the rent. THANKS.

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