The Foods of Yankee Doodle

You might want to listen to this in the background as you read.

Why is Yankee Doodle on the food page? Keep reading. According to information from the Blanchard’s Tavern site, Yankee Doodle, which has become a patriotic theme of America’s Revolutionary War fighters,  was originally an English song that the Redcoats used to make fun of the Americans that they fought beside against the French. The Yankees turned the ridicule on the British as they played it while they marched to defend Lexington–a British defeat.

The Blanchard Tavern

An historic tavern built in 1784 in Avon, Massachusetts, the Blanchard Tavern building still stands, but is no longer open to the public on a daily basis. Check the website if you are interested in seeing the tavern and the neighboring 1820 house.

I love the Library of Congress’ explanation of this musical battle:

Singing a song in Revolutionary America was not necessarily an innocent act. At the time, almost everyone sang in public on occasion, either for entertainment, for worship, or as part of their work. However, songs were also important instruments of satire and mockery. People used them to make fun of public figures, to pass ugly rumors, or to playfully insult their enemies—and sometimes their friends.

Yankee Doodle found its way onto the food pages of Ancestors in Aprons because so many mostly unfamiliar foods are mentioned in the song–not only the mysterious ” stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” in the American version, but just look at the food references in the British song.

Drum and Fife Corps

Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companie, Sudbury, MA, photo by Joyce Isen

The American Version of Yankee Doodle

Presumably, my ancestor, Samuel Bassett, played this tune on his fife when he marched at Bunker Hill. (I consider him the MOST patriotic of my many patriotic ancestors. See why here.)

We all know the American version of Yankee Doodle (a “doodle” was a fool, or a person very bad at music). Perhaps it is a symbol of American in-your-face optimism and revolutionary spirit that made them steal this song from the British and turn it from an insult into an inspirational song in praise of the Yankee spirit.

Musical NotesYankee Doodle went to town, A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap, And called it macaroni.
[Chorus]
Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle dandy,
Mind the music and the step, And with the girls be handy.
Fath’r and I went down to camp, Along with Captain Gooding,
And there we saw the men and boys, As thick as hasty pudding.
[Chorus]
[The original goes on with verses like this about fighting.]
And there we saw a thousand men, As rich as Squire David,
And what they wasted every day, I wish it could be saved.
[Chorus]
The ‘lasses they eat it every day, Would keep a house a winter;
They have so much, that I’ll be bound, They eat it when they’ve mind ter.

 *Note: You can see many more verses at Wikipedia, including the kids’ version we are more familiar with.

Macaroni:  Not a food reference. Men who wore foppish wigs in the 18th century, wore hats adorned with feathers. Dumb Yankees, the British suggested, didn’t know the difference between a piece of pasta (they were probably thinking more of spaghetti than what we picture as macaroni) and a feather.

Hasty Pudding: Grain (in Britain wheat, in the U.S. corn) cooked into a porridge.

HUNGER: The final stanza here refers to the Yankees deprivation compared to the well-fed British.

The Original British Version, with Explanations.

Musical NotesBrother Ephraim sold his cow, And bought him a commission
And then he went to Canada. To fight for the nation
But when Ephraim he came home, He proved an errant coward
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there. For fear of being devoured.

Sheep’s head and vinegar, Buttermilk and tansy,
Boston is a Yankee town, Sing Hey doodle dandy;
First we’ll take a pinch of snuff, And then a drink of water
And then we’ll say how do you do, And that’s a Yankee supper.

Christmas is a coming boys,We’ll go to Mother Chases
And there we’ll get a sugar dram, Sweetened with molasses.
Heigh ho for our Cape Cod, Heigh ho Nantasket
Donor let the Boston wags, Feel your oyster basket.

Ephraim: A Massachusetts millitiaman colonel killed fighting the British at Lake George was named Ephraim Williams.

 Sheep’s head and vinegar: A cold cut made of meat cut from the head of an animal and pickled in vinegar was called “souse” in Britain. Obviously, people who are eating every part of the animal, are not wealthy enough to throw away the less desirable parts.

Buttermilk and tansy: Soaking the leaves of the tansy herb in buttermilk makes a lotion to whiten the skin or remove freckles.

These references are probably pointing out the poverty of the people in the colonies, since they are followed with the “Yankee supper” of a pinch of snuff and a drink of water.

Sugar Dram, Sweetened with molasses: A dram of rum or whiskey sweetened with molasses would be a popular Colonial cocktail.  Molasses was looked down upon as a poor man’s substitute for refined white sugar, which was rare in early America.

oyster basketThe early settlers had learned from the natives how to harvest oysters. In the late 19th century, oysters were considered a gourmet item–particularly after they could be shipped by rail, preserved on ice. But in the early days of the country, they were eaten simply because they were available. But this verse has a more scatalogical twist to it as well. (Hint: on ranches they still have “oyster fries” after neutering calves.) You can see the literal oyster basket here, but I won’t picture the other one.

Here’s an original song sheet of the American version, from the collection of the Library of Congress.  You will notice that the emphasis has changed from the mockery of the low-class Yankees to a positive focus on the strength of their resistance.

Yankee Doodle song sheet

Original Yankee Doodle song sheet from the Library of Congress.

 

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