Food is the most underrated and overlooked approach to teaching U.S. history. After all, if you think about it, cooking is a life skill that has been passed down from generation to generation, beginning with our ancient ancestors, and of course coming into the modern history of our country.
When you really start digging into it, you’ll find that food is everywhere in American history:
You can trace a line of bread crumbs, if you will, through every major era in American history. It’s with us as we immigrate, emigrate, and migrate. Food is a part of our celebrations. Every bite we eat has a long history behind it.
Eating captures students’ attention and while it’s so prevalent in our lives, it’s very rarely used. So, here’s a quick lesson (and recipe) to share with your children to make U.S. history a little more digestible.
Setting a Table for the Past
Thanks to technology, we can now access tons of historical American cookbooks digitally. If you really want to dive in and explore the meals of early Americans, you can check out Michigan State University’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project. They’ve digitized dozens of rare books cookbooks and recipes dating back to the 18th Century.
Just keep in mind—if you’re planning on trying out a recipe for yourself, it could take a little converting, maneuvering, and guess work since (as you’ll find out), early American recipes didn’t use the same measurements that we now do.
One of the advantages of these kinds of primary sources discovering the details of what our predecessors used to eat. Lungs, brains, oyster ice cream, turtle soup, and pepper cakes will probably make your children laugh, but it gives them insight into how different dinner tables looked compared to today.
If you pay close enough attention, you’ll see how recipes and tastes change over time due to different influences (like immigration, technology, health regulations, and fads).
What is “American Cuisine”?
Knowing how much American tastes have changed brings up the questions: What is American cuisine?
American food reflects the history of the U.S.; it reflects the way our country has changed. It has welcomes Native American, European, African, and Asian influences as far as cooking methods and ingredients. Our cuisine is a blend of many lands, regions, and people:
In truth, many—if not all—of the dishes we consider to be American, actually aren’t. Even the “all-American apple pie” has foreign beginnings, since pies came over from England along with the early colonists.
Of course, the foods that are the foundations of American cuisine—turkey, pumpkin, corn, and cranberries—do have native origins. We know the Pilgrims lived off of corn, beans, squash, and game, but that was largely because Indigenous Peoples of America taught them how to hunt, cultivate, and prepare those foods. They shared their heritage and knowledge, which really embodies what American cuisine is all about.
A Recipe to Celebrate American History
CNN Travel attempted to narrow down the greatest American food dishes in a 2017 article. What was number one? Thanksgiving dinner!
While that can be interpreted many ways—from tofurkey to macaroni and cheese to oysters to green bean casserole to candied yams—one dish that always seems to make its way to the Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie!
Here’s a quick recipe we pulled from Allrecipes; it’s simple enough to whip up with your children and get them involved in the kitchen. (And don’t worry, you can find many of these ingredients on Amazon.)
You can learn about the eras that defined American cuisine registering for a U.S. History Abroad course. (Sign up for our Newsletter to get notified when registration for the new school year opens!)
What’s your favorite American food? Share it in the comments below!