Sometimes people leave behind a little piece of history that is worth so much to modern day scholars. We do not know who William Worcester Dudley was, but between December 1785 and October 1786, he kept a food diary that tracked every meal he ate for breakfast, dinner, and supper. While it was not uncommon for people to keep diaries of their habits, the document has survived as an exceptional source of food history.
Why Dudley felt the need to maintain this food diary is unknown, but its contents provide researchers with a glimpse of cuisine in 18th-century America. During a time when food sources were limited to what was produced in the young nation and one’s social status, we can concur that Dudley was capable of procuring a variety of meats, vegetables, and drinks such as coffee, chocolate, and tea. The largest meal was typically dinner, held in the middle of the day to provide any hard working citizen with enough energy to get through a day. While Dudley’s meals typically consisted of bread and porridge, lunch was a variety of roasts, potatoes, and victuals.
The food diary not only shows the habits of Dudley, but also the trends in 18th-century American cuisine. In a time without grocery stores, people relied on the food that was readily available. It wasn’t uncommon for people to consume the same meals every day, particularly breads, stews, and salted meats. Those of the poorer and working classes would typically have a more restricted diet of breads, cheese, and food from private gardens. Even Dudley, who had the luxury of eating meat all year, would eat the same food stuffs for a month at a time as he did in June 1786. Of course be the end of winter, food stuff would be more limited and even Dudley was resorted to eating victuals and bread.
Today, food continues to be part of our culture, but we also have full access to foods from all over the world at any given moment. At the same time, it’s interesting to see what people ate on a daily basis in the past. While it took some time to develop recipes and a food culture in the American colonies, we continue to enjoy many of the same meals, but without the labor or hunting or growing it for months.
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.