The American diet has been diverse from the beginning, as would be expected since diverse peoples settled the country. All of them brought traditional foods to the table, so to speak, foods considered strange today. For example, the English brought their love of pies to America, but many of the types of pies they enjoyed aren’t commonly found today. Modern noses turn up at many of the foods consumed by our ancestors, and some of what was regularly eaten is not even considered food today.
Some of the dishes which are considered strange — which is a generous descriptive to say the least — included roast peacock and peahen. In medieval times they were brought to table with flourishes including their own feathers. Other dishes from medieval times are still savored today by a few, including eel pies and jellied eels. There are still eel shops in London, though relatively few. Another food, beaver tail, was eaten widely in the Middle Ages because the beaver was an aquatic animal. The tail resembles a fish, and was so considered so, allowing it to be eaten on fast days of the liturgical calendar. Here are ten foods once widely enjoyed by Americans but generally considered strange today.
10. Eel Pie and jellied eel
Eels were plentiful in the waterways of Britain, particularly in the Thames, and eel shops abounded in the city during the days of American colonization. Arriving colonists in America were happy to find the waterways of the New World teemed with fish, eel among them. Settlers cooked eel in a variety of ways. They were fried, baked, broiled, and both used in pies and jellies. To make the latter, chopped eel was boiled in a stock, which was then cooled. The cooled stock set as a jelly, and eaten cold. In America, it was often made in the evening, allowed to cool overnight, and enjoyed for breakfast.
For most Americans today, facing cold chopped eel in jelly with one’s morning coffee does not appeal. But early American settlers loved them, taking them from the waters of Cape Cod and inland streams. Lobsters, with which the area also teemed, were so common they were often used as bait for eels. Interest in jellied eel and eel pies subsided in American cuisine as much from overfishing as for any other reason. Today eel is consumed mostly as sushi rather than in pies, though there are diehards who swear by them as a delicious dish. To each his own.
9. Pear cider and perry
Making an alcoholic beverage from pears is a process which was recorded in the annals of Ancient Rome. The Romans carried the process to France, and the Norman Invasion took it to England. Two alcoholic beverages were made from pears: pear cider and perry. Pear cider was always scarcer than cider made from apples. Pear trees grow more slowly than apple trees, and produce less fruit per tree to be harvested. But they have the advantage of being able to produce annual harvests for two centuries or more, if well husbanded. Perry became a popular cider in France and England, but in America the more prevalent apple became the primary choice for fermentation.
Pears suitable for making the beverage perry are less common than those typically eaten. In order to make a good perry, the pears need to be astringent and are typically smaller than those consumed as fruit. In France, varietals for different types of perry were developed by cultivars. Perry was well-known in early America, among those with money, imported from Britain and France. It died out in the mid-19th century. More recently, the craft brewing industry, particularly in Oregon, began producing American pear cider and perry, which are distinctly different beverages. Pear cider is sweeter than its more expensive cousin. Whether either becomes popular in America is an open question.
8. Sassafras, used as a spice and a medicine
The Europeans who arrived in colonial America had never encountered the sassafras tree, a genus indigenous to North America and Asia, but unknown in Europe. They discovered the natives using the sassafras tree in a wide variety of applications. The leaves were used to treat wounds. Other parts of the tree were used as medicines, against the woes of scurvy, toothaches, colds, fevers, and many other disorders. Leaves of the tree were also dried, ground, and used as a flavoring. It is still used in the manufacture of file, also called gumbo file, used predominantly in Cajun cooking.
Sassafras root was the source of the flavor for root beer, though it is no longer present in most commercially made root beers. The leaves were boiled and eaten as greens during the Starving Time in colonial Virginia, as well as in the early settlements of North Carolina. Sassafras bark was stripped from living trees and shipped to Britain by the early colonists as a cash crop. The process killed the trees and reduced supply, making the commodity harder to acquire. Other than in file and in a few crafted root beers and craft beers, sassafras is seldom consumed as a food today, one reason being its tendency to damage livers and kidneys.
7. Roasted turtle and turtle soup
Well into the 20th century roasted turtle and turtle soup were commonly consumed at American tables. Arriving colonists found the waters of their new home were the old home of myriads of Green Snapping turtles. The Pilgrims ate their meat at their tables, cooked them into stews, and devoured their eggs as well. Turtle eggs were an appreciated delicacy, served to dignitaries and on special occasions. Recipes which survive from the 19th century instructed the housewife in the cleaning of turtles, and the proper use of the meat from different portions of the body.
The turtle was said to contain seven different flavors of meat, each resembling veal, shrimp, chicken, goat, beef, pork, or fish. The best use of each portion was advised by cookbooks. In the 1920s Campbells offered a canned version of turtle soup. Eventually mock turtle soup, using the meat which the various portions of the turtle resembled, overcame the use of turtle meat. Convenience was the main factor, the availability of whole turtles another. Mock turtle soup is still common in America, but real turtle soup, which is in reality more of a stew, can seldom be found outside of Louisiana.
6. Roasted beaver tail
As mentioned above, the beaver was once considered a fish, allowing the meat of the tail to be consumed on days when fasting was ordained by the church. The days of considering it a fish were over by the time Europeans arrived in America, but eating beaver tail was not. Typically, the tail was severed from the animal and cooked over an open fire until the skin charred and split. It was then taken off the fire, the skin peeled away, and the meat boiled in a pot of water until it was tender. If a pot of water was not available the tail could be roasted, as it often was over campfires by hunters and trappers.
Early Americans dined on other parts of the beaver, including the liver. The entire animal was cut into parts, as would be a chicken, and roasted, fried, or baked. It did not however taste like chicken. Instead its meat was claimed to resemble wild rabbit. But the tail was considered to be the best cut of the animal, laden with protein and fat, and when properly cooked, moist and buttery in texture. Beaver meat was also used in stews and in New England baked into pies. The predominance of recipes easily found online indicate it was once quite popular, and in Canada and parts of North America, there are some who still relish roast beaver tail, and a good beaver pie.
5. Dried fish were enjoyed throughout the country
Fish of all sorts was an important source of protein in early America. Records from Mount Vernon describe annual catches of mackerel in the spring, with vast amounts of fish captured. The fish was a cash crop, food for slaves on the plantation, and served on Washington’s table. It was often eaten for breakfast. Since fish deteriorates quickly, it was salted and dried as a means of preserving it. The quality of the salt used in the preservation process was critical. Cheaper salts were corrosive and destroyed the flesh they were meant to preserve. Dried fish had to be rehydrated before it was eaten, though it retained high levels of salt when it was consumed.
Canning, and later freezing, replaced drying as the primary means of preserving fish in the late nineteenth century, and dried fish all but disappeared from American restaurants and tables. It remains a feature of some ethnic cuisines. Fish is seldom served at American breakfast tables anymore either, replaced by bacon or sausage, or other proteins. Dried fish was also once eaten in America as jerky is today, without further cooking as a snack or a meal. The image of fish drying in the sun, heavily laden with salt, is an unappetizing one for most Americans, but it was once a mainstay of the diet at all levels of society.
4. Mutton was a major protein source
Mutton is the meat of an adult sheep, that is, an animal more than two years of age. Some countries also use the term to describe the meat of goats. Few Americans eat mutton anymore, its flavor and texture both considered unappealing. But it was once a major contributor to the American diet. Stronger in flavor than lamb, or even domestic beef, mutton was once the most popular meat in the United States. Modern Americans often go their whole lives without ever once tasting it, and have an aversion to trying it. It has been the butt of jokes – a memorable episode of Seinfeld denigrated mutton thoroughly – and it is generally disdained.
One reason for the decline of mutton’s popularity was how it was cooked. Mutton requires slow cooking at lower temperatures, for up to 25 minutes per pound for some cuts, and post-World War II lifestyles didn’t accommodate such dedication. During the war American servicemen were often fed canned mutton from Australia and their dislike of the meat came home with them. Mutton (and lamb) were banned from their tables. By the end of the 20th century, Americans on average consumed less than one pound of meat from sheep per year, nearly all of it lamb. It is virtually impossible to find mutton in today’s butcher counters, and even harder to find any demand for the once popular meat.
3. Syllabub was a festive drink
Syllabub was both a drink and a dessert, consisting essentially of curdled cream, flavored with citrus and the agent used to curdle the cream. Samuel Pepys wrote of the beverage in his famous diary in 1663, so we can assume the concoction came to America from Britain. The first cookbook published in the American Colonies, The Compleat Housewife (1753), contained a recipe for syllabub. It included a quart of cream, the juice of three lemons, a pound of sugar, and a pint of wine, beaten together. The acid in the wine curdled the cream, causing it to froth. According to the recipe, the result kept for up to ten days, and was best when consumed after three or four days of aging.
It was a dessert and an after-dinner drink, though it was also served on festive occasions, separate from a meal. For use as a dessert the froth was skimmed off and served separately, the liquid discarded. Some recipes suggested tinting the froth with saffron or the juice of beets or spinach. Syllabubs were popular throughout the British colonies in America, and remained so until the mid-19th century, when they gradually and inexplicably faded away. If curiosity compels one to make a syllabub, a sweeter white wine such as a Riesling is recommended as the liquid.
2. Madeira wine
A fortified wine from the Portuguese Islands of Madeira was once an essential part of fine dining, served with cheese at the end of the meal. A long period of relaxation, sipping Madeira, was considered essential to good digestion at finer tables. Port wines, including Madeira, are readily available in the United States, though their popularity is not what it once was. Lingering at table after meals is no longer an American habit. In fact, it never was, except in the upper classes. Americans sit, eat, and go on about their business. There isn’t any time to linger over Madeira and cheese.
Madeira was the beverage chosen by the founders to toast the Declaration of Independence when their work was finished. A bottle of Madeira was broken across the bow of the USS Constitution when it was christened in 1797. Madeira’s qualities were used to ensure the legal debates of the early Supreme Court remained civil. Through the late 19th and early 20th century its popularity waned, in part because it was linked to gout. By the mid-20th century it was considered no more than a cooking wine, unfit for drinking. As such it is mainly considered today.
1. Robins were a popular game bird
An entry in an 1890 American cookbook reads, “Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins.” Robins were once a popular food in America, hunted and eaten on the frontier and served in restaurants and fine homes. Besides being baked in pies, robins were fried, baked, and broiled over open flames. They were split, or kept whole and stuffed, much as quail is today. The most popular means of preparing them though was baking them in pies, often in company with other small birds.
They were far from the only small bird eaten. Why they fell out of favor is unknown. From the cookbook recipe noted above it is clear they were still regularly consumed around the turn of the 20th century. But then, so was mutton. Tastes change. In 1890 few Americans would have considered eating sushi, though eel pies were still fairly common. Today robins are protected by the Migratory Bird Act, and hunting them is illegal. They are one food of a bygone era with little chance of returning to the popularity they once held at the table.