Historic America

American Cornucopia

Food, abundance, and religion have been integral to American culture since the first colonists arrived over 400 years ago.

The intersection of food and religion has long been integral to American culture. It is so ingrained in American life, we publicly celebrate abundance every November on Thanksgiving Day. The image of colonists and indigenous peoples sharing a bountiful harvest reminiscent of the Last Supper is a powerful metaphor for how we view food as a unifying force in society.

When the first colonists arrived they encountered a land of plenty teeming with wildlife. At Plymouth colony in 1621, a storm left the beach covered with piles of lobsters two feet high.  “They were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor,” Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont explained in Eating in America. The storm left pools of crabs all along the shores of Virginia.

Commenting on the abundance of fish at Jamestown, Captain John Smith wrote, “we tooke more in owne hour than we could eate in a day.”  The colonists wondered at the size of the salmon, strawberries, and lobsters in the New World, and the Pilgrims, finding the luxury of clams and mussels tempered by their abundance, fed them to their hogs.[1]

With origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the act of breaking bread with friends and neighbors had long been ingrained in religious ritual.  So it was a feast the Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags after their first arduous winter in New England, which eventually inspired the creation of a national holiday, Thanksgiving, centered around the consumption of large quantities of food. 

John Smith celebrated his first Christmas in the New World around the dinner table with the Powhatans and noted, “we were never more merry nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread, nor ever had better fires in England.”[2] 

A hundred years later, the American colonists placed food and drink high on their list of grievances with the motherland. The Tea Act of 1773 precipitated the infamous Boston Tea Party, in which fifty angry colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped 90,000 pounds of tea into Boston Harbor.  Under the stifling economics of mercantilism, tea had become a symbol of British rule.  The British used excessive taxes as a weapon against colonial merchant-agitators like John Hancock, who customs officials accused of smuggling Madeira; a type of fortified wine. 

The number of colonial grievances that arose from the taxation of food and drink led Root and de Rochemont to remark, “foodstuffs have to be counted among the causes of the American Revolution.”[3]  The Continental Army, once war broke out, was equipped, among the normal staples, with sugar, ginger, rum, and molasses, even when they lacked things such as guns and clothing.[4]

It should come as no surprise, then, that the slaves Americans brought over from Africa and acculturated in the South also held food and drink in special reverence.  “In the American South, food has traditionally been a catalyst for social interaction, and southern hospitality is renowned,” Pamela Kittler and Kathryn Sucher explained in Food and Culture in America. “Food is lovingly prepared for family and friends. The sharing of food is considered an important factor in the cohesiveness of southern black society.”[5] 

An abundance of food was equally important to their antebellum masters.  A suitable breakfast in Montgomery, Alabama in the early 1830s, according to one stunned English traveler, contained generous helpings of cornbread, buckwheat cakes, fresh and pickled fish, broiled chicken, beefsteak, hominy, bacon, and eggs.[6]

Religious scholar Jualynne Dodson and sociologist Cheryl Gilkes believed that the act of sitting at the “welcome table” to break of bread with friends, family, and other church members was a relic of African tradition that pointed to food as, “an important mytho-poetic element in the process of community formation.”[7] 

While it is difficult to dispute that the sharing of food is of central importance in the Afro-Christian tradition, it is equally difficult not to see the similarity to historical traditions in the rest of American society. Food remains a fixation for Americans of all backgrounds, from its religious significance, to its abundance or scarcity, to its effect on health. 

Christianity, which preaches that “breaking bread, drinking wine, and praising God are inextricably tied together,”[8] has long been equally accessible to people of all backgrounds throughout American history. The centrality of bread and wine in Christian religion, coupled with an abundance of farmland and livestock, makes food a unifying element in American culture, an element we choose to publicly acknowledge and celebrate every November.

[1] Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont, Eating in America: A History (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1976), 51-2.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid., 96.

[5] Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn Sucher, Food and Culture in America: A Nutrition Handbook (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1989), 191.

[6] Root and de Rochemont, 121.

[7] Jualynne Dodson and Cheryl Gilkes, “’There’s Nothing Like Church Food’: Food and the U.S. Afro-Christian Tradition: Re-Membering Community and Feeding the Embodied S/spirit(s),” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (Autumn 1995): 520.

[8] Ibid., 522.

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