The History and Present State of Food in Virginia

There was nary a cook among them. Nor a single woman, the usual gendered division of labor notwithstanding. No, in December 1606, the Virginia Company of London sent 104 men into the treacherous, wintry Atlantic, with stopovers in the Canary Islands and later Bermuda and the Caribbean. After a brief reconnaissance stop at Cape Henry, they made their way to what became James City on May 14, 1607.

And this is how they found themselves thus, according to Captain John Smith, who arrived in chains for some perceived infraction, only to be released once it was determined that the Virginia Company of London had decreed him – in a secret ballot and box – one of the governing council of the new colony.

Way past the planting season, thanks to a voyage of five months instead of two.

Whilst the trading ships stayed, our allowance was somewhat bettered by a daily proportion of biscuit, which the sailors would pilfer to sell, give, or exchange with us for money, sassafras, furs, or love. But when they departed, there remained neither tavern, beer house, nor place of relief but the common kettle. Had we been as free from all sins as gluttony and drunkenness, we might have been canonized for saints. But our President would never have been admitted, for engrossing to his private oatmeal, sack, oil, aqua vitae, beef, eggs, or what not, but the [common] kettle. That, indeed, he allowed equally to be distributed, and that was half a pint of wheat, and as much barley boiled with water for a man a day. And this having fried some twenty-six weeks in the ship’s hold contained as many worms as grains, so that we might truly call it rather so much bran than corn. Our drink was water, our lodgings castles in the air.” (Captain John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), Chapter 2 Book 3.

So how did 104 men manage? History suggests not well. The story of the settlement of Virginia leads to the fascinating story of America, with insights into what became the United States. And the food? In the beginning, English. And in spite of the multitude of souls that arrived on these shores, with all their culinary skills, the food at root still  tastes of England.

Upcoming: The first official cookbook arrives aboard the ship Supply, 1620.

Replica of Jamestown buildings at Jamestown Settlement, Virginia (Photo credit. C. Bertelsen)

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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