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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Eating and Drinking in a Colonial Tavern

Our founding fathers spent a lot of time in taverns. They conspired and drank, plotted and drank, schemed and drank. Some historians believe that the American nation itself was conceived in a tavern. But in addition to the political meetings, colonial entertainment commonly took place in local taverns, rather than the home. While a tavern’s primary draw was alcoholic beverages or social company - parties, business meetings, banquets, and friends just gathering occurred regularly. Families did not go out to eat for fun like today.
Most of the people who dined publically were men (with their indentured servants and apprentices). The people who ate in the taverns and inns were generally travelers, those not lucky enough to stay in the homes of friends or family. Frequently the price of a room included the meals. Travelers expected the food and liquor on the road to be mediocre and the choices limited, and they were right. Cooking facilities were usually limited, maybe including an open hearth where only broiling and boiling were possible.
The prime location for a tavern was adjacent to a courthouse or a ferry. Tavern and inn keepers had easy access to prominent citizens as they made many acquaintances, or maintained a creditor’s hold over their patrons. In larger cities, tavern owners competed with each other for customers, advertising the merits of their establishments in the local paper.
Occasionally, small private dining areas were established so that the elite would not have to mingle with the ordinary citizens. In 1793, the City Tavern in Philadelphia advertised, “Private Dinners any day, or every day, for members of Congress, or parties of private Gentlemen, will be set on the table at any hour.”
Let’s Eat. 
Taverns were not known for good food, people ate because they were hungry. Patrons sat together and were served together. They could take as much as they wanted from “communal bowls,” but this food disappeared fast.
The meals varied greatly by the location, the season, and the food available. Some communities set standards for food service or distinguished between a “good meal” and a “common meal.” Prices were usually fixed by local law.
So, what was on the menu? Well actually there were no menus and no individually priced items; although sometimes a daily bill of fare was written on a slate board. The food prepared was whatever the cook decided to make.
Most meats were heavily salted for preservation. They may consist of beef or veal; pigeon, duck or turkey; mutton; salmon, eels, oysters, or lobster. Generally shell fish was preferred over fish. Pork (ham or bacon) was the most popular meat served to travelers, but in the south it was chicken. Even bear meat and smoked or pickled tongue were not uncommon.
Vegetables were not very popular at the time. Where were their mothers? But potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, beets, onions, cabbage, squash, and cucumbers were usually available.
Breakfast was served at 9:00 a.m. Ham, salted fish, pancakes, toasted bread, and coffee or tea was the usual fare. Since travelers were generally not farmers, a later breakfast time was acceptable. Supper (actually lunch) was around 2:00 p.m. Dinner in big city taverns might include several courses. First was broth, then a main course of English roast beef or pork with potatoes, boiled peas, baked or fried fish, boiled or fried eggs, salad, pastries, fruit, cheese, and pudding. While this sounds tasty, the quality was all over the map.
Let’s Drink.
Drinking was the most popular activity of all tavern recreations. The kind of drinks served depended on the tavern’s location, what was available, and the economic status of the customers.
The most popular distilled liquor of the time was Rum. Most of it was imported from the West Indies. Punch, the second most popular, was a combination of exotic fruit ingredients. Lime punch was the favorite version. Punch was served warm and by the bowl. Both punch and wine were consumed by the more affluent customers. Wines were imported from Spain and Germany, when available.
The “toddy” was rum mixed with sugar, water, wine, beer, and nutmeg. This was also served by the bowl.
Most average colonials drank cheaper, fermented beverages made locally. Hard cider was sold by the jug, and was designated as “summer” or “winter” cider. Cider was a favorite in both New England and in the deep South. Beer was also locally brewed. Homemade liquors such as peach or apple brandy became popular after the Revolutionary War stopped the importation of many other alcohols.
Eating and drinking in a colonial tavern was an adventure. You never knew what you’re going to get.

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