Sourcing food, sourcing food history: Researching FOOD in the Garden 2014

This September, we join Smithsonian Gardens in hosting our annual FOOD in the Garden series. We'll explore four maritime regions impacted by the War of 1812 (Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico) and discuss 200 years of connections between land, water, people, and food in a relaxed garden atmosphere—with delicious food and drinks, of course! Historian Amanda Moniz, PH.D., shares discoveries from her research, which will inform the program this year.

Food in the Garden in the museum's Victory Garden
Our Victory Garden, tended by the talented people at Smithsonian Gardens

I had never thought much about the food history of the War of 1812, but when I was asked to research this year's FOOD in the Garden series, I was intrigued.

We hear much more about the voluntary meatless and wheatless days during World War I and with the rationing and Victory Gardens during World War II. But how did the social, cultural, and economic factors that shaped foodways at the time of the War of 1812 impact the lives of people in the distinctive maritime regions being explored at the museum this September?

Long Island Sound

Coast chart no. 116: Stratford Shoal to New York, Long Island. United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Courtesy of The University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Coast chart no. 116: Stratford Shoal to New York, Long Island. United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Courtesy of The University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Port cities on the Sound, like New London, Connecticut, and New York City, linked the area to regional and international markets. What sorts of imported food did residents find in their markets in the early 1800s? As I expected, newspapers, such as the New Haven Connecticut Herald, carried merchants' ads for food. To my surprise, there were also ads for garden seeds imported from London. I had not known that the vegetables in kitchen gardens might relate to transatlantic commerce. With trade cut off by the British blockade, the war affected what Sound residents might import, grow, and eat.

Chesapeake Bay

Marsh grasses in Blackwater National Wildlife Regfuge. Courtesy of the CHesapeake Bay Program via Flickr Creative Commons.
Marsh grasses in Blackwater National Wildlife Regfuge. Courtesy of the CHesapeake Bay Program via Flickr Creative Commons.

As the British advanced up Maryland's Patuxent River, they raided plantations for food, destroyed tobacco crops, and offered freedom to the region's enslaved people.

When they invaded Washington, D.C., in 1814, they burned important buildings and doomed official events, including a White House dinner party. I wanted to get a sense of what First Lady Dolley Madison might have been serving, so I explored cookbooks used in Virginia gentry households in the early 1800s. Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a British cookbook, and Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife, the first regional American cookbook, both reveal French and other foreign influences on elite cuisine.

The cookbooks reveal the importance of local fish and shellfish, as well as traditional dry-cured ham, but nothing about the people, often enslaved, who tended the gardens and prepared the meals. How did the disruptions of the war affect their work, their foodways, and their lives in the long run?

The Great Lakes

Map of Upper and Lower Canada, 1812, Thomas Kensett
Map of Upper and Lower Canada, 1812, Thomas Kensett

Besides newspapers and cookbooks, I examined travelers' accounts from the early 1800s, and, by luck, one source I had been reading for Long Island Sound helped shape my understanding of the Great Lakes. Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, journeyed all over New England and one year went to Buffalo, New York. Dwight noted that at an inn 30 miles from Buffalo, he ate sipawn (or supawn). I had never heard the word before, but it turns out to be an Iroquois term for a maize pudding. Dwight's familiarity with an Iroquois word and Iroquois dish led me to explore how the war affected native food supplies and native communities. American troops in the region, I learned from a Myaamia (Miami) educator, ruined native farmland and made hunting hazardous.

Gulf of Mexico

A Gulf of Mexico sunrise by Flickr user Terry Ross, via the Creative Commons
A Gulf of Mexico sunrise by Flickr user Terry Ross, via the Creative Commons

I found much about the region's foodways, but less about the impact of the war on them. Thanks to the work of historians, cooks, and others, we know much about how native peoples, enslaved and free people of African descent, and French settlers contributed to some of the most distinct culinary traditions in North America.

One primary source especially captured this story for me. Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1819 and painted a watercolor depicting people at the city's market. (Incidentally, Latrobe, a British-born architect, was responsible for rebuilding the United States Capitol after British forces torched it in 1814.) His watercolor shows a heterogeneous group of people selling and buying food—as well as observing one another—only a few years after the war. Latrobe's picture seems to me to tell the story of the endurance of a distinct market culture during the difficult years of the War of 1812.

Andrew Jackson wore this uniform coat at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815
Andrew Jackson wore this uniform coat at the Battle of New Orleans, January 8, 1815

These and other primary sources revealed some of the themes that the FOOD in the Garden programs will address in September. The series offers an opportunity to explore, for example, the interplay between local and global food sources, the endurance of culturally diverse markets and cuisines, the impact of the war on various groups of people, and the role of waterways in food distribution and disruption. We hope to see you in the Victory Garden at the museum on Thursday evenings this September.

Posted at 8:58 am EDT in Food & Shopping,Food History

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