Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Food Glorious food!: Foodstuffs in the Letters of Alida and Robert Livingston, 1680-1700

While moving from my tiny old office to a freshly-emptied one across the hall I came across two long-lost research files.  They were full of transcripts of letters between Alida, Robert Livingston (seen at left), and a small assortment of family and associates.  Hooray!  I put them on a shelf for a "rainy day," and one finally came up.  So I cuddled up in my new, roomier office with a view of the Hudson River to see what jumped out at me from a first reading.


Food!  There is a lot of talk of food in these letters:  food for trade, food for the family, food to provision an army.  It's a dizzying array of goods that helps to paint a more vibrant picture of life in Colonial New York.

To begin with, there is a lot of talk of meat, particularly in the letters between Robert Livingston and his brothers-in law, S Van Cortlandt, Philip Van Cortlandt, and Brandt Schuyler.  These men were discussing the business of shipping and trading and later the business of victualing an army during King William's War 1690-97.

In particular, meat was a particular concern for feeding the army.  These three men usually referenced it by the barrel, meaning that it was probably preserved in salt and possibly smoked as well.  They talk about "meat" (possibly beef), "ox-meat," and "pork."  In 1680 Livingston mentioned "a barrel of fish" to his wife Alida.  It was not always of best quality.  "I never saw salted meat so nor packed with so much salt as this Pork was. In truth one eight of it was salt," wrote Governor Hunter of one shipment in 1710.  But salted and cured meats were the most common form of consumption in the colonies, often being part of three meals per day. 

How big was a barrel of meat?  Barrels were used for a huge variety of products.  They barrels varied in size and often corresponded to what was in them.  For instance, barrels containing tobacco--referred to as hogsheads--were regulated by law to be 48" tall and 30" across the top and bottom.  The meat barrels being discussed in this case may seem quite large to you and I.  One of S. Van Cortlandt's letters references "6 more big barrels containing 3541 lb. of ox meat"  (emphasis mine).  Assuming they were all holding roughly equivalent quantities, that's about 590 pounds of meat per barrel.  I guess that is pretty big.  But in the same letter, Van Cortlandt also mentions having to buy New England meat, "a barrel of which does not contain that much." 

The expense of meat was a constant concern, seemingly especially bad in 1691.  Van Cortlandt complained in October ...I could not purchase any [meat] but at a very high price."  Later in the letter "I have never in all my life had as much difficulty in raising money as now."  In October 1691Van Cortlandt complained that "meat costs 34 and 35 sh[illings] a barrel here...[I] will be forced to pay 34 for New England [meat]..."

Sometimes  meat came on the hoof.  The men discussed moving livestock including cattle, sheep, "300 well fatted sows."  These meat animals could be moved live to their needed locations and slaughtered there for food.  In October 1698 Alida wrote "we have slaughtered those 9 animals and distributed for 31 days" to the Indians, though apparently they were eaten quicker than expected since in the next sentence she complained that "all has now been consumed."


Later in November 1691, Van Cortlandt later procured "531 lb. of ox-meat," along with  "2 barrels of pork" and "35 barrels of meat" and packed them on a yacht for the 70 men on board.  But meat was not their only food.  The men were also provisioned with "53 loafs of soft bread at 7lb. apiece and [2 lb, 1 shilling, 12 pence] in hard bread and 4 barrels of small beer."

Bread was a staple of both the Dutch and English diets (Dutch culture still being very present in the Hudson Valley), and it was made in a huge variety of shapes and consistencies, and wheat was grown extensively in the Hudson Valley region.  Barrels of flour were heavily traded by the Livingstons, taken in annually from their tenants farmers as payment for their rent (usually in tandem with fowl and labor, referred to as a "days riding").  Alida and her husband often speak of wheat in very large quantities, once mentioning 200 barrels being loaded onto a boat for trade in 1682.  And one whole series of letters was sent back and forth between Livingston and Van Cortlandt seeking a payment of a debt of  "12 barrels of flour" from John Gilbert in April and June of 1681.

The price of the wheat was frequently the topic of discussion as well--reminding me of the way in which we now focus on the price of gas.  In 1681 S. Van Cortlandt wrote Livingston that "flour is in Barbados 20 orretten, 5 [pounds] Long Island [and] wheat is 7 guilders per bushel in New York."  From the context of the letter, I sadly can't figure out whether these prices are high or low. Some 17 years later in 1698, Alida wrote the price of wheat as "no less here than 10 guilder the bushel."

Baking bread was often done at special ovens instead of individual homes.   In September of 1698, Alida told her husband "I have spoken to Wessels about the baking but they are not ready for heaths because of the continual rain."  Similarly, a decade later in 1710, when the Palatines were making their best efforts in East Camp (future Germantown), a man named Kass worked as the baker for the Livingstons.  Unfortunately for Kass, the Livingstons weren't given enough money to feed families in East Camp, and he once had to be hidden to keep hungry rioters from beating him.

You might have noticed that Van Cortlandt provisioned his men with "small beer" in November of 1691.  Beer was among the most common daily drinks in the colonies, primarily because water and other non-alcoholic beverages were of unreliable quality and often unsafe.  In this collection of letters, beer and "small beer" (which had less alcohol) were the most commonly-mentioned beverages.  Other alcohol was also part of the conversation: barrels of rum (accompanied by its byproduct molasses) and "anker of brandy" in October of 1691 are both mentioned.  Even so, S. Van Cortlandt mentioned the brandy, it was followed up with a request for Livingston to "send down good beer" for Mr. Bridger "to be drunk by spring.  He requests that it be good since there will be many tasters," Van Cortlandt added importantly.  On the whole though, beer was the most common beverage in these writings.

 You might think that in an agricultural society like this one, produce would be a big part of the letters.  To the contrary, since Alida and Robert and Van Cordlandt were most often discussing food that was to be shipped or moved somewhere, I found few references to fresh food.  Fresh food was certainly produced, but it rarely was mentioned when the Livingstons and their partners discussed loading and unloading shipments.  The most commonly mentioned vegetable was peas.  Alida sent 900 bushels to her husband in April of 1698.  So early in the season, these may likely have been preserved (perhaps by drying) over the winter, and it is possible that they were destined for planting.  The concept of dried peas is further supported by the fact that Philip Van Cortlandt shipped peas "as per your orders" to his brother Livingston in the dead of winter--January--1682. 

Apples, which are now closely identified with this region, are mentioned in the letters three times.  Once in 1682, Philip Van Cortlandt thanked his brother-in-law Livingston "for the apples you sent [they] are very good and longlasting."  This was in January so even if they were picked in October, those apples were four months old.  Apparently Livingston was sending out gifts of apples that month.  He also sent some to S. Van Cordlant, who deemed them "very good and durable."

In September of 1698--closer to harvest season--Livingston's wife Alida Alida was worried, not only about apples in 1698, but also about peaches.  "You don't send me any [peaches] nor apples for none are to be gotten here for it seems that you do not think much about us," she wrote.  Why there were "none to be gotten," I don't know, but peaches were one of the marvels of New York.  According to The Island at the Center of the World, the luscious fruit grew particularly well in the local soil and climate, and the Dutch were thrilled with the bounty.

Alida's letters with requests for food to feed the family and stock the manor store show the most varied list of foodstuffs.  On March 20, 1698 (I imagine just after the ice had broken up on the Hudson to enable shipping), she requested "2 prunes, 2 currants, 3 raisins, 6 rice."  (These foods all have a symbol--presumably a unit of measurement--transcribed after them, but it is unknown to me and not translatable onto the computer)  This fare could have been produced in other colonies, but her request in the same letter for "2 lood bayleaves, 2 lood cinnamon sticks" indicates some more exotic tastes.  Later in 1700 she sent out to her husband and son Johannes from her stores at the manor "a small bag with ginger and allspice and the small bag with salt."  Alida was of Dutch decent, and Dutch cooking heavily favored spices like these for both sweat and savory foods.

The Dutch sweet tooth also came through in Alida's food orders. In August of 1698, Alida was trying to restock her household with sugar.  On the 25the she wrote "if our barketine [boat] comes in then we have to have 2 hogsheads of sugar."  Three days later on the 28th she reminded her husband (in case he hadn't been paying attention the first time, perhaps), "let a barrel of sugar come up."  Sweets were a special part of the Dutch and English diets.  The Dutch were the originators of cookies, according to noted Dutch food historian historian Peter Rose, but other sweets were part of the diet of Colonial Americans, particularly the well-to-do. 


And there you have it--about twenty years worth food as described in letters to and from Robert Livingston from his wife and associates.  Because the letters are generally discussing shipping, this record leaves out local produce, produced in kitchen gardens and even large plots--anything that was grown and consumed in the same location.  But it does give us a picture of the food that was transported around the region, whether it was to feed the troops, stock a store, or feed the family.  Preserved meat, peas, and wheat or bread seem to have seen the most travel.  But other products, including exotic spices and sugar from Caribbean seaports were still an important part of the diet.

What were people cooking with the food?  Soldiers would have subsisted on the most basic fair, cooked and served sometimes in the same tin kettle.  Instead Alida would most likely have drawn from her Dutch background, with possible additions from the influx of English culture around her.  Although she was living at the manor, often isolated from the comforts of New York City or Albany, she nevertheless would likely have had some fine dishes.  She and her husband were wealthy, and was procuring silk for clothes and paintings for her walls so it is no stretch to imagine fine ceramics or silver on top of her table rug or cloth (seen layered above).

Either way, both the soldiers and Alida (seen at right) were limited by seasons and the long time required to ship products from place to place.  Fresh peaches were for September, but aging apples, dried raisins, and currants were the fruits of January.  Fresh meat was always to be had, but wheat for bread paramount and came in large shipments.

Just like today, food was an important part of life.  People worked long hours to earn or grow it.  Women worked hard to prepare it, and people ate it together every day (if they were lucky).  Just as the taste of your own mother's recipe for pie (or cookies, you know what I mean) might take you back to being five years old and sitting under the kitchen table, food can stimulate a whole different way to understand and relate to history.  You might have to use a little imagination, but it's worth it to feel what it was like to live in Colonial New York.

Want to learn more about Dutch foodways?  Try Peter Rose's books and lectures!

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