Eating Over Time
What we eat has changed over time, reflecting access to different kinds of foods, changing tastes, and the influence of different cultural traditions as well as different technologies for cooking and storing food. One of the biggest changes in food has to do with how far it travels to get to our plates.
(Mostly) Local food and home preservation:
During the pre-colonial period through early/mid 19th-century, most people were physically close to the origins of most of the ingredients that they ate. With a few important exceptions (sugar, molasses, spices, tea), nearly everything they consumed was something they had raised, hunted, milked, or butchered. Autumn harvests brought in much of the food supply all at once, so a housewife’s challenge was to transform raw goods into foods that could last into coming months of scarcity.
Preservation included salting, drying, freeze-drying, fermentation; suspending in fat, vinegar or sugar; cold storage and cellaring. In a prosperous colonial household, dried herbs, alliums (onions, leeks), meats hung in the kitchen; pickles, dried beans, and potted meats packed closet shelves; pie and meats lined the outer walls of attics; and apple and potato barrels, squash and pumpkin, and casks of cider and beer hunkered down in the cellar.
Buying Food at the Market:
As cities grew in the early 19th century, households leaned more on markets since they had limited space to store and preserve food; city households bought food in smaller quantities, but more frequently and from further away; farms specialized to serve cities rather than local markets. For instance, some farmers in Fairfield shipped their crops to be sold in New York and Boston.
Buying Food from Far Away:
Canned food, which was prevalent by the 1870s, made it possible to ship food products safely a long distance. By the 1890s, refrigerated railroad cars revolutionized meatpacking, and enabled long-distance shipping, making it easier to buy vegetables that came from California, peaches from Georgia, and bananas from Latin America.
These changes made food cheaper and more accessible. They also shifted the landscape we live on by distancing us from the source of our food. Today, in New England as a whole, only about 5% of the land produces food, and only a small fraction of the population work in food production. Ninety percent of the food we eat comes from outside the region. The numbers are even smaller in our region, where land is more valuable for real estate than for farm production.