Putting Food on the Table: Then & Now
By Emily Liss
Foodways and Garden Manager
As the newly-minted Foodways and Garden Manager, my every waking moment is consumed by food: planning for it, planting it, harvesting it, processing it, eating it, and let's face it, even dreaming about it, too. And frankly, that's as it should be. Much of the story of human history is the story of our relationship with food. Today, we don't think about obtaining food all that much, aside from a weekly trip to the grocery store, and we certainly take for granted the incredible abundance and variety to which we have access.
I don't bat an eyelash when I see strawberries for sale in November, or apples in April, nor when I see products imported from the other side of the world. It seems like every week, there's something for sale that I've never even heard of before -- what on earth you do with breadfruit? This modern way of eating is both a marvel of science and technology, but also raises some unsavory questions about how exactly our food is being produced, and what exactly it contains.
One of the questions I'm often asked on the farm is how a Bristol tenant farmer would have eaten in the 1790's. Visitors often have the idea that the diet was either perfect (no GMO's!), or it was terrible (scurvy, anyone?). I'm here to tell you that, like everything, it was complicated.
On one hand, the standard 18th century diet was not especially diverse. The majority of their daily caloric intake was grain and animal-based, including eggs, meat, milk, and fish. Vegetables were thought of more as "sauce," partly because they simply couldn't be counted upon. Hauling water from the well up to the garden was so labor intensive that it was rarely done, meaning that a dry year meant a meager harvest. Of course, being in a booming port-town like Bristol, they did have access to surprisingly exotic foods like ginger, olive oil, and rosewater, but with the exception of tea and refined sugar, these foods were used in small quantities. So, the 1790's diet was seriously lacking in both vegetables and variety.
But, here's the other side: in the 1790's there were no pesticides, herbicides, or GMO's. There were no antibiotics or hormones, and certainly no factory farms. All farming was, by default, organic farming because there was simply no other option. All crops were grown in healthy, living soil, because manure (or fish) was the only fertilizer - no N,P,K chemical fertilizers, here! Also, much of the food they grew was selected for flavor and vigor, as opposed to shelf-life and transportability (ever compared an heirloom tomato and a store-bought tomato?), so we can be sure it tasted awfully good, too.
So, what does it mean? It means that the quality of their food--organic, pastured--was overall superior to ours, but today we have access to much greater variety, as well as the knowledge (in theory) that fruits and vegetables play a larger role in a healthy diet than just as a flavoring or side dish. There's no question, though, that we as a society would benefit from learning more about the way people produced their food in the 18th century, and hopefully we can use this knowledge to improve our own relationship with food.
So there you have it: as promised, a complicated answer to a complicated question!