The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites

by Libby O'Connell


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"Like many miniencyclopedias, this one is studded with often intriguing facts."—Kirkus

New York Post Required Reading and an Entertainment Weekly Top 3 Must-Read!

From the chief historian at HISTORY® comes a rich chronicle of the evolution of American cuisine and culture, from before Columbus's arrival to today.

Did you know that the first graham crackers were designed to reduce sexual desire? Or that Americans have tried fad diets for almost two hundred years? Why do we say things like "buck" for a dollar and "living high on the hog"? How have economics, technology, and social movements changed our tastes? Uncover these and other fascinating aspects of American food traditions in The American Plate.

Dr. Libby H. O'Connell takes readers on a mouth-watering journey through America's culinary evolution into the vibrant array of foods we savor today. In 100 tantalizing bites, ranging from blueberries and bagels to peanut butter, hard cider, and Cracker Jack, O'Connell reveals the astonishing ways that cultures and individuals have shaped our national diet and continue to influence how we cook and eat.

Peppered throughout with recipes, photos, and tidbits on dozens of foods, from the surprising origins of Hershey Bars to the strange delicacies our ancestors enjoyed, such as roast turtle and grilled beaver tail. Inspiring and intensely satisfying, The American Plate shows how we can use the tastes of our shared past to transform our future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492609865
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 473,825
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Libby H. O'Connell is senior vice president of Corporate Outreach and chief historian to the History Channel. She is the author of several books, including Save Our History, White House-200th Anniversary and History of Halloween. Libby lives in New York City.

Tanya Eby has been a voice-over artist for over a decade. She is an Audie-nominated and AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator. Besides narrating, Tanya spends her time teaching creative writing classes at the collegiate level, blogging, and working on her own novels.

Read an Excerpt

The American Plate

A Culinary History in 100 Bites

By Libby H. O'Connell

Sourcebooks, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Libby H. O'Connell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4926-0303-0



American Indian Foods before Columbus

Zesty tomato sauce from Italy. Baked Irish potatoes, hot and comforting. Robust Indian curry with red pepper spiciness. You may think of them as originating in foreign countries, but these traditional dishes are actually all based on flavors from the New World, foods that traveled eastward from North America across the Atlantic in the hulls of Spanish ships more than five hundred years ago. They would revolutionize the way people ate around the world.

Less culturally defining, or perhaps just more routine, are the lowly beans and squashes that regularly appear on plates and in bowls around the world. These New World foods also changed diets, extending life expectancy and increasing population growth all over the globe, and while they may not have the zing of some of their more flavorful counterparts, they're equally important. And don't forget American corn, or maize, with its central role in much of American Indian culture. It is one of the most important food crops today.

The Americas have a remarkable variety of indigenous foods, and many foreign cuisines wouldn't look the same without them. South America gave us the potato in its various sizes and colors, which shaped the eating habits of northern Europeans — with devastating effect in nineteenth-century Ireland where the population had become too reliant on this one crop for sustenance. It's hard to imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes, which originated in Mesoamerica (Central America) thousands of years ago, but there was a time when the future of pastas looked decidedly pale.

In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors introduced tomatoes to Europeans, who eyed them skeptically. For one thing, tomatoes did not flourish in the damp, cool weather of northern Europe and Britain. Plus, their luscious appearance clearly labeled them as aphrodisiacs, while their leaves, so similar to their cousin, the deadly nightshade, linked them to poison. Fear trumped appetite, sexual or otherwise, so it is hardly surprising that the soft red fruit took a while to catch on. When it finally became clear that daring epicures did not die from eating what some people styled as "love apples," tomatoes flourished in the sunny kitchen gardens of southern Europe. Interestingly, both tomatoes and potatoes would travel back to the North American Atlantic Seaboard almost two hundred years later practically as novelties.

Other American Indian foods flourished in what today is the United States. These are the crops that many tribes grew, harvested, prepared, and bartered. The Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — and other food supplies made up the provisions that the American Indians generously shared with newly arrived British settlers along the Atlantic coast. The initial survival of the earliest colonies in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia, largely depended on the hospitality of the indigenous people with their food and cooking.

While you are reading the first ten bites, it's important to remember that throughout North America, the First Nations had different cultures, cosmologies, and eating habits. Some were farmers, some were hunters, and some a mixture of both. Women in many regions gathered nuts, roots, berries, and wild greens such as watercress and fiddleheads, the curling tops of native ferns, in the early spring. In some tribes, women had also tended fields for generations, while others did not practice agriculture.

Note: In this chapter, I mention specific tribes or locations in an attempt to stay accurate, as broad generalizations are often unhelpful and inaccurate when describing American Indians before and after European contact.



(Zea mays)

* * *

People started farming in the Americas more than thirteen thousand years ago. In Mexico, archaeologists have found evidence of the cultivation of maize — what most Americans today call corn — since 7000 BC when ancient people domesticated and hybridized a wild grass called teosinte, the genetic ancestor of this versatile grain. Dispersed by wind, rain, and farmers sharing seeds hand to hand, the maize seeds traveled in all directions.

Over the centuries, native farmers selectively bred their crop to have larger cobs and bigger kernels, making the corn easier to harvest and process into food. As the cultivation of maize spread northward, different tribes developed various techniques and traditions for turning the hard seeds into nourishment. Maize became so central to tribal culture that its planting, sprouting, and harvest played important roles in religious observances and calendar reckoning.

More than four thousand years ago, ancestors of the Hopi Indians were among the first indigenous people in the American Southwest to cultivate maize in what are now Arizona and New Mexico. It took about two to three thousand years more for maize farming to spread to the native tribes of New England, although some archaeologists believe that the cultivation of maize and other plants — including sunflowers and tobacco — happened independently on the East Coast.

Maize grew happily in semicleared fields without special plowing, which made it easy to cultivate. In many tribes, women tended the cornfields with their Stone Age tools, planting beans and squash around the low mounds where the maize grew. These three food crops — maize, beans, and squash — became known as the Three Sisters. The tendrils of the bean plant climbed up the cornstalk, supporting both the bean and corn plants, while the large flat leaves of the squash plants discouraged weeds. Today, anthropologists call this milpa agriculture, "milpa" being the ancient Nahuatl (Aztec) term for field.

Compared to some of the world's other domesticated grains, maize was an enormously productive crop that didn't require intensive labor. Wheat, for example, demanded more time and effort from the European peasant. Corn grew in poor or rich soils and happily shared space with other local crops as well as beans and squash. Once harvested and dried, the cobs or kernels could last all winter in covered pits or mounds. This was not the sweet, juicy yellow corn we buy today. The kernels were hard and variously colored — like the decorative Indian corn that stores sell now in the fall, only the cobs were smaller. Different kernel colors and cob sizes were identified with different localities.

Maize is a high-calorie carbohydrate and was an excellent food for the native people, who worked hard physically throughout the year. When the hard kernels were soaked overnight in an alkaline solution (such as water mixed with wood ashes), the heart of the seed was exposed and people could more easily absorb the nutritional value.

Corn is incomplete nutritionally, but when eaten with beans, it forms a complete protein. Adding bright orange squash to the meal contributes valuable vitamins. Thus, traditionally, the Three Sisters combined well not only in the field, but also in the bowl, making sturdy, nutritious dishes.

By the way, the word "corn" comes from an English term that refers to a region's local grain, which could be wheat, oats, or barley in England. The settlers called maize "corn," recognizing it as the common grain of the American Indians. Today — for better or for worse — corn and corn products are abundantly represented in our national diet and the global diet of many people as well.



(Phaseolus vulgaris)

* * *

Like corn, beans have played an ancient, vital part in the traditional diet of American Indians, today and more than five hundred years ago. Most kidney-shaped beans — such as navy, scarlet runners, kidney, pinto, black, and lima — originated in the New World. Some details missing from the historical record can be more easily traced through word origins, and it's fun to see and hear the linguistic links with the past on our menus. For example, pronounce "lima" with a Spanish accent, leema, and you'll recognize that the lima bean was named after Lima, the capital of Peru, its homeland. The French word for green bean, haricot, comes from the Aztec ayecotl.

We often forget the humble bean's role as a change agent in the human story. Providing a cheap, reliable form of protein, it extended life expectancy among the Americas' First Nations and still provides vital nourishment to people all over the world. Following the cultivation of maize, the bean appeared as one of the Three Sisters in the common village plot set aside for farming. The black bean and the multicolored pinto bean are close relatives to the beans grown by pre-Columbian American Indians. Today, pinto and black beans abound in robust Mexican and vegetarian dishes.

Like maize, beans were dried and lasted well into the spring. They thickened the daily stews or soups, absorbing the smoky flavors of venison, buffalo, or salmon jerky and infusing the food with those deliciously complex tastes. Combined with corn, beans form a complete protein even in a meatless supper, which was crucial for indigenous tribes in the Americas when their game or fish supplies ran low due to heavy snows or other conditions.

Also, American Indians had essentially no dairy or domesticated poultry until the arrival of Europeans. Cheese, milk, and chicken eggs played no role as protein sources until the 1500s, when the Spanish conquered the American Southwest and introduced varieties of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. Thus, the combination of beans and maize in various dishes, like the traditional succotash recipe below, was of key nutritional importance.



(Cucurbita pepo L., C. moschata, and other varieties)

* * *

The third and final of the Three Sisters, squash has always grown in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes ranging from small pumpkins and acorn squash to thin, green zucchini types. There are two basic kinds of squash, summer and winter. Summer squash — like yellow squash and zucchini — have an edible, soft skin and soft seeds, and will last when ripe for two weeks in a cool, dry place. Winter squash — such as butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash and pumpkin — have a hard rind and seeds with shells, and can be stored for months.

Although many of our squashes, like our beans, have been hybridized for taste, appearance, and shelf life, the traditional acorn squash is a good approximation of the plant grown by American Indians more than a thousand years ago among the cornstalks and the climbing runners of the beans. The drying process after harvest intensified the natural sugars of the thinly sliced orange squashes and pumpkins. This sweetness brightened the flavors of winter stews. Native women cleaned and dried the seeds of the pumpkin and other squashes, sometimes grinding them into flour. Local nuts — pecans, hickory, butternuts, black walnuts, and acorns, depending on the region — were also shelled and stored for winter, often by women and girls working together while they chatted and sang songs. The seeds and nuts brought texture, protein, and vitamins to the American Indians' diets. Stewed pumpkin, sweetened with dried berries and maple syrup, created a dish close to what modern Americans would call dessert.

It may be delicious, but don't confuse stewed pumpkin with pumpkin pie. The ingredients for a wheat-flour pie crust, the hen's eggs, the cane sugar, and most of the spices required to make a pumpkin pie would not be available on the North American continent until after the arrival of the colonists.

Once the women removed the soft insides and seeds from winter squash, the hollowed shells served as temporary eating bowls or containers. American Indians often ate one-pot meals, and both winter and summer squashes might be included in those big mixtures. The scooped-out shells of some squash varieties made pretty dishes to hold the stews, and cleanup was a breeze. Today, many kinds of squash are rising in popularity again, as people embrace everything from acorn squash and pumpkin to spaghetti squash as a healthier substitute for its pasta namesake.



* * *

All this focus on corn, beans, and squash might indicate that American Indians ate a largely vegetarian diet. Far from it. Meat and fish of all kinds occupied a central role and took on spiritual aspects as well. The tribes who lived near the great natural cathedrals of early American forests developed efficient ways to hunt deer, a mammal that preferred cleared areas or the woods' edge to the forest itself. Native hunters drove herds of deer into rivers, where the animals could be easily snared by other members of the hunters' clan waiting for the prey. The men lit controlled fires driving deer into funnels created by high piles of brush and logs where small herds could be killed en masse. More typically, hunters expertly killed deer with weapons such as bow and arrows or spears.

Venison functioned as a primary source of protein in the diet of many American Indian tribes, but the deer itself provided much more than just meat. Woodland Indians, such as many of the Algonquin tribes, used deer hide (with the hair) for winter clothing and as blankets. Expertly tanned or roughly scraped, the hide would become so central to American Indians' commerce with white settlers that a dollar's value became known as a "buck," or the price of a male deer hide. (Imagine what a million bucks worth of something back then would have looked like — that's a lot of deer hides!)

No part of the deer went unused. The skin itself, made soft and pliable by women's energetic pounding and scraping, could be used as a canvas for artwork or pictoglyphs, for housing, and for clothing. Tendons and muscles were stretched to provide webbing for snow shoes, traverse equipment, and papoose scaffolds. Antlers, bones, and teeth became weapons, tools, and ornaments. None of the carcass went to waste.

Although they were plentiful, deer were a challenge to kill with the Stone Age weapons at hand. Often hunters had to track a wounded deer for miles. If a hunting foray proved particularly successful, lucky and skillful men might return home with several dead deer or send others to fetch the carcasses where they were killed. After a communal feast, where everyone enjoyed the bountiful meat, women would set to work preserving the rest of the venison for the future.

Hunger frequently haunted the tribes in the late winter, when provisions set aside in the abundance of autumn began to run low and no food could be found on the plains or in the woods around them (depending on where they lived). Sometimes warring or rival tribes would destroy each other's food supplies to try to wipe out their opponents, or sometimes the winter would be unusually harsh and long — this was, after all, the Little Ice Age. Some Algonquin tribes referred to February as the Hunger Moon.

Most native people preserved meat during the hunting season by hanging it in strips above a slow fire to create jerky. (Our word "jerky" comes from the Peruvian Quechua ch'arki, meaning smoked or burned meat.) Any meat could be preserved this way, including bear, duck, turkey, buffalo, and rabbit. Women would remove the fat and melt it slowly, rendering it separately to extend its freshness.


American Bison

(Bison bison — also known as the American Buffalo)

* * *

Deer weren't the only four-legged creatures that American Indian tribes feasted on in early days. Vast herds of bison inhabited most of today's central continental United States, stretching from the western slopes of the Appalachian chain to the Rocky Mountains, in forests and on the prairies. Smaller herds existed along the East Coast but died out soon after the Europeans' arrival.

A bison bull is a huge mammal, weighing in at about a ton, while the bison cow averages seven hundred pounds, dainty by comparison to her mate. The Plains Indians, a category that includes six language groups and many tribal nations — Oglala and Lakota Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, Comanche, and others — identify themselves as people of the bison, because their life, culture, and ultimately, their destiny were inextricably tied to these great, shaggy beasts.

A classic image of American Indians hunting bison shows them riding expertly on horseback while shooting arrows at the herd. But there were no horses in the Americas until the arrival of the Spanish in 1492. So, before that, for more than two thousand years, men hunted buffalo on foot, sometimes chasing herds over cliffs for a mass slaughter.

This technique of herding bison to their death proved extremely effective, and a clan could feast for days on the choicest cuts of the bison, such as the tongue and liver.


Excerpted from The American Plate by Libby H. O'Connell. Copyright © 2015 Libby H. O'Connell. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction xvii

Chapter 1 The Three Sisters and So Much More: American Indian Foods before Columbus 1

1 Maize 3

2 Beans 6

Recipe: Traditional Succotash 7

3 Squash 8

4 Venison 9

5 American Bison 11

Recipe: Pemmican 13

6 Blueberries 14

7 Maple Syrup 15

8 Wild Rice 17

9 Red Peppers 19

10 Salmon 21

Chapter 2 Cod, Beaver Tail, And Sassafras: Encounters and Exchanges, Old World and New 23

11 Jamaican Pepper or Allspice 26

12 Atlantic Cod 28

13 Pork 30

14 Beaver Tail 32

Recipe: Roast Beaver Tail 34

15 Sassafras 35

16 English Garden Herbs and Vegetables 36

Recipe: Cockaleekie Soup 41

17 Cow's Butter 43

18 Eel 46

Recipe: Old Eel Pie 48

19 Perry 49

20 Turkey 50

Chapter 3 Breakfast with Rum and Tea: From Colonies to Country 55

21 Corn Again! 56

Recipe: Breakfast Hoe Cakes 57

22 Doughnuts, Waffles, and Cookies 59

23 Wheat Flour 61

24 Oxtail Stew 62

Recipe: Oxtail Stew 64

25 Sugar 65

26 Syllabub 67

Recipe: Colonial Syllabub 69

27 Pie 70

Recipe: Shoo Fly Pie 71

28 Rum and Whiskey 74

29 Tea and Coffee 76

30 Green Peas 78

Chapter 4 Roast Turtles and Hangtown Fry: The Rise of a New Nation 81

31 Oysters 82

32 Roast Turtles 84

33 Ice Cream 85

34 Brunswick Stew 86

Recipe: Brunswick Stew 88

35 Cake and the Era of Andrew Jackson 89

Recipe: Election Day Cake 92

36 Spanish California Rabbit Stew 93

Recipe: Rabbit in Chile Sauce 95

37 Hangtown Fry 98

Recipe: Hangtown Fry 99

38 Irish Potatoes 101

39 Mint Juleps 103

Recipe: Classic Mint Julep 105

40 Chitlins 106

Chapter 5 Hardtack and Chop Suey: From the Civil War to the Factory (1860?1875) 109

41 Lincoln's Favorite Cake 110

Recipe: Mary Todd Lincoln's White Almond Cake 112

42 Soldiers' Rations 114

43 Fried Catfish 116

Recipe: Fried Catfish 118

44 The Rise of Thanksgiving 119

45 Railroad Workers and Chop Suey 122

46 Borden's Canned Condensed Milk 124

47 Beer and Pretzels 126

48 Pasta with Red Sauce 131

49 Lunch Pails 134

50 Rhubarb 137

Recipe: Strawberry Rhubarb Pie 139

Chapter 6 Baked Alaska and Barbecue: The Gilded Age, the Gritty Age (1870?1900) 141

51 Baked Alaska 142

Recipe: Modern Baked Alaska 145

52 Oysters Rockefeller 148

53 Beef Tenderloin 150

54 Cold Cereal 152

55 Cracker Jack 156

56 Chicken Paprikash 158

Recipe: Hungarian Chicken Paprikash 160

57 Scrapple 161

Recipe: Scrapple 163

58 Bagels and Bialys 164

59 Celery 167

60 Barbecue 169

Chapter 7 Hot Dogs, Liberty Gardens, and Bathtub Gin: The Progressive Era, World War I, and Prohibition (1900?1928) 173

61 Hot Dogs 174

62 Bananas 177

63 Commercial Canning 180

64 Peanut Butter 183

65 Home Canning and Food Conservation 184

66 Doughboy Rations during World War I 189

Recipe: Red Cross War Coke 191

67 Lace Cookies and Oreos 192

Recipe: Oatmeal Lace Cookies 196

68 Cocktails and the Roaring Twenties 197

Recipe: Gimlet 201

69 Canapés 201

70 Tostadas 203

Chapter 8 Scrambled Eggs, Hershey Bars, and Peach Cobbler: The Great Depression and World War II 205

71 Mulatto Rice 206

Recipe: Mulatto Rice 209

72 WPA Soup 210

Recipe: WPA Soup (Potato Sausage Soup) 212

73 Lamb's Quarters 213

74 Eleanor Roosevelt's Scrambled Eggs 215

75 SPAM 217

76 Meatloaf 219

77 Hershey Bars 220

78 Peach Cobbler 223

79 Navajo Fry Bread 226

80 Frozen Food 229

Chapter 9 Coca-Cola, Iceberg Lettuce, and Fast Food The Postwar, Cold War Era 231

81 Jell-O 232

82 Iceberg Lettuce 234

83 Coca-Cola 236

84 Pizza 239

85 TV Dinners 241

86 Cuban American Food 243

Recipe: Ofelia Braga's Picadillo Criollo 245

87 Jack Kennedy's Fish Chowder 246

Recipe: New England Fish Chowder 248

88 Crème Caramel 249

89 McDonald's 252

90 Southern Fried Chicken 255

Recipe: Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken 257

Chapter 10 Microwave Popcorn, Mesclun Greens, And Salsa: 1969?2000 259

91 Microwave Popcorn 260

92 Wonder Bread 262

93 Granola 265

94 Mesclun Greens 268

95 Ginger Carrot Soup 270

Recipe: Ginger Carrot Soup 272

96 Quiche 274

97 California Vintage Wine 276

98 American Cheese 279

99 Salsa 284

Recipe: Mango Salsa 286

100 Sushi 287

Epilogue: A Few Extra Bites: American Food Today 289

101 Chili Con Carne 290

Recipe: Firehouse Chili con Carne 292

102 Super Foods and Diets 293

103 Molecularly Modified Foods 297

Notes 301

Photo Credits 315

Index 317

Index of Recipes 329

About The Author 331

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The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Shamaalthedog More than 1 year ago
If you like history and you love food, this is the book for you! I learned so much about various foods and foods I never knew existed (like beaver tail). Written in short snippets, it's hard to get bored with a food before moving on to another one!
nikki1CO More than 1 year ago
Libby O'Connell has a whole new take on the history of food in America. She breaks major foods down into bites, giving a history of the food & putting it in a modern day context. Far from being a boring dry book, her book is full of fun facts, well written & a pleasure to read, especially if you are at all interested in the origins of "American" food, or just food in general
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even good for older children! This is one of the most complete histories of the US, told through the food we have found, cooked and eaten over the centuries. And except for a couple of esoteric items (yes, the beaver tail) the recipes are definitely worth trying. Read a section with your family, make the dishes together, and consume history.