Eating the Past is a new series which asks what the history of food – from Indian cookbooks to early modern pineapples – can tell us about how people have shared knowledge, created community and adapted to change in the past.
As a cultural historian of food, I am endlessly fascinated by what knowledge and belief systems need to be in place before a particular food can be comfortably and consistently consumed. Propping up every meal and every mouthful is a scaffolding of knowledge and a complex edifice of culture. These structures that surround the consumption of food are arguably what makes or breaks a food culture.
I am reminded of these processes most days. Whether that be recalling my mum’s Yorkshire pudding recipe, which she learned from her mum, or my Venezuelan friend showing me step-by-step how to make arepas and where to buy the right flour. The Yorkshire puddings I have with my Sunday dinner, or the stuffed arepas I eat for lunch, are not merely delicious foodstuffs. They are the end products of generations of learning, adapting, sharing, and, in some cases, stealing. They are the outcome of elaborately and expertly processed wheat and maize, the consequence of carefully honed and exploited environments and landscapes.
In the West today it is easy to forget about these food knowledges and their historical impacts. For many of us, it is relatively simple to access a range of ingredients from all over the world which have been grown and processed for us and neatly packaged and marketed to meet our specific preferences and cultural expectations. The same was not true for much of history. Although the global exchange of food products and food cultures dates back centuries, it was through self-sufficiency and locally-sourced produce that most people fed themselves. In early colonial America, where grocery shops were non-existent, imported foods arrived sporadically, and environmental differences made cultivating well known European crops extremely difficult, food knowledges were a matter of life or death, having profound historical consequences.
For the first few decades of English colonisation in North America, relevant food knowledge remained squarely in the hands of Indigenous communities. The English could not rely on their own agricultural skills, nor on regular shipments of food from England. Instead, accounts of the earliest days of English colonial settlement make oblique but numerous references to the skill and knowledge of Indigenous peoples. When English colonists first arrived in Massachusetts onboard the Mayflower in 1620, for example, they resorted to the theft of Wampanoag food supplies.
Finding a winter Wampanoag settlement on what is now known as Corn Hill, the colonists stole the winter corn supplies and robbed Wampanoag graves, taking ‘sundry of the pretiest things away’ with them. These stolen foodstuffs did not last long, however. Without the knowledge to grow their own corn successfully, and with their own supplies from England dwindling, colonists increasingly relied on Indigenous people to feed them.
Perhaps the most famous was Tisquantum, a member of the Patuxet community, who had been kidnapped in 1614 by the Englishman Thomas Hunt and trafficked by Hunt to Spain where he was sold into slavery alongside twenty three other Indigenous people. Tisquantum eventually managed to gain his freedom and returned to America in 1619, working as an interpreter for Captain Thomas Dermer. On arrival, Tisquantum found his community deserted. A mysterious disease, most likely spread by European colonisers, had ripped through the area between 1616 and 1619, wiping out Tisquantum’s people and his home of Patuxet. Tisquantum is often credited with teaching the Plymouth colonists how to grow maize. Not only did Tisquantum teach the colonists Wampanoag methods of cultivation, including the use of small fish as fertiliser, he also used his skills as a huntsman to source food for the English. Writing about one such occasion, the colonist William Bradford described how Tisquantum went to fish for eels on behalf of the English, catching them ‘without any other Instrument’ save for his hands and feet.
Edward Winslow’s account of the first harvest at Plymouth is indicative of just how reliant colonists were on Indigenous food knowledges and agricultural expertise. Winslow made it clear than in Massachusetts Indigenous methods of agriculture were vastly superior to those of the English. Winslow explained that the colonists planted twenty acres of maize ‘according to the manner of the Indians.’ The maize the English planted proved ‘well’ and resulted in a ‘good increase of Indian Corne’, while the peas they sowed using English agricultural techniques were ‘not worth the gathering’, having been ‘parched’ by the sun.
Writing about New England over a decade later, William Wood was clear that the English ability to grow maize successfully was thanks to Indigenous knowledge. The Indigenous people of Massachusetts , so Wood told his readers, were the colonists’ ‘first instructers for the planting of their Indian Corne’, teaching the English how ‘to cull out the finest seede, to observe the fittest season, to keepe distance for holes, and fit measure for hills, to worme it, and weede it; to prune it, and dresse it’.
Maize quickly became the mainstay of the English colonial diet, being the most commonly listed cereal in probate inventories (lists and valuations of personal belongings owned by a deceased person) across the colonies of the northeast. Though still reliant on maize, the English colonists soon adapted to their environment and began using their own agricultural knowledge to feed themselves and the wider imperial system. As Strother Roberts has demonstrated, the New England colonists increasingly took by force, violence, and coercion fertile land that had been worked for generations by Indigenous farmers. These were fields that had been carefully honed to ensure that they could produce multiple harvests of maize, beans, and squash. By planting these crops together, and by hoeing the soil rather than ploughing it, Indigenous farmers were able to stave off soil erosion and maintain the nutrients needed to successfully grow their crops. In contrast, the English required ever more land for their agricultural produce, particularly wheat, clearing woodlands to make way for fields that would be productive for only a year or two.
The impact of these English food knowledges was two-fold. In stealing land from Indigenous communities, the colonists of New England were able to become critical suppliers of food for the rest of Anglo-America. In particular, grains grown in New England on stolen Indigenous land fed the population of enslaved Africans who worked the sugar plantations in Barbados. Alongside helping to sustain the trans-Atlantic slave trade, English food knowledge had a devastating impact on the North American environment, fundamentally changing the composition of the soil and accelerating deforestation which in turn led to a greater risk of floods and droughts.
These ecological impacts are still present today. The focus on monocrop agriculture in North America has, for example, increased the amount of non-organic and polluting chemicals in the ecosystem. It has also left global food supplies more vulnerable to pests and blight and the environment more susceptible to a loss of biodiversity and increased man-made climate change.
As English food and agricultural knowledges and cultures became ever more entrenched, Indigenous forms of knowing were concealed by Indigenous communities and actively suppressed by colonial actors. Although the spread of European settler colonies and the increasing annexation of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands undoubtedly impacted the survival of Indigenous food knowledges, Christopher Parsons has also argued that Indigenous communities actively concealed their ecological knowledge from colonists as a way of resisting colonial exploitation and the dismantling of their spiritual connection to the natural world.
Indigenous peoples today are once again using food knowledges as tools of resistance. Through the establishment of seed libraries, which bring together Indigenous ways of knowing in a practical and ecologically transformative way, and through community cooking and farming projects, Indigenous people are recovering their traditional food knowledges as a way to treat generations of ancestral trauma, push forward the revitalisation of Indigenous cultures, and centre Indigenous perspectives on climate justice.
Knowledge about food was, and still is, a driver of historical change and a shaper of the human experience. How food knowledges were put to work in a colonial context still profoundly structures our world today. Exploitative and exhausting methods of cultivation allowed for the production of plentiful crops that underpinned the British imperial system and bolstered the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the consequences of which are still felt keenly by the descendants of colonised and enslaved people today. At the same time, English agricultural methods have detrimentally altered the environmental landscape of America and have influenced modern methods of monocrop agriculture which continue to harm the natural world. Despite these devastating impacts, food knowledge is also now being harnessed as a tool of cultural revitalisation and resistance by Indigenous peoples across the globe. The food we eat, and how we choose to produce it, can be both culturally and environmentally destructive and productive, both rejuvenating and ruinous. This duality is worth pondering when you next sit down at the dinner table.