Rotten or Fermented?: Disgusting Cross-Cultural Foods in Early America

By Carla Cevasco

In Autumn 1764, the English missionary Samuel Kirkland was dispatched to a Seneca Indian village in western New York, where a Seneca family adopted him, as was common practice. A hard winter followed, and the family shared their increasingly scanty food supplies with Kirkland. When food ran low in early 1765, Kirkland traded one of his shirts to an Indian outside the family, receiving four cornmeal cakes in return. So great was his hunger, “At first sight I thought I could devour them all at one meal,” but he vomited up the first cake he ate.[1] He kept the remaining cakes until they began to mold, then offered them to his adoptive nieces and nephews, who ate them without hesitation. The hungry children could stomach what Kirkland could not. It is unclear why the cornmeal cakes so disagreed with Kirkland. Perhaps they were already moldering by the time he purchased them, or, as he noted, his digestive system was sensitive after months of near-starvation. Regardless, the fact that the cakes had begun to spoil did not deter the Seneca children from eating them. The Seneca also ate other foods that Kirkland considered rotten: as Kirkland’s sister-in-law cut up maggot-infested bear meat to feed to the family, she whispered to her husband Tekânadie that she feared “their brother white man could not eat of it.”[2]

Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796 Image Credit: Wellcome Library
Brown Bear, Etching by James Tookey after Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1796.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

From captivity narratives and missionary accounts, it is clear that Indians routinely and without digestive upset ate foods that the English thought of as rotten or spoiled. Of course, according to the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, rottenness is “culturally specific”—one culture’s rotten, inedible food is another’s fermented, edible food. For example, Icelandic people prize their fermented shark delicacy, hákarl, while Anthony Bourdain has called it “the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” (Full disclosure: the closest I’ve gotten to hákarl is Brennivin, the so-called “Black Death” schnapps that is meant to accompany the shark—it is also unspeakably foul.) In light of the cultural specificity of fermentation, it is less clear whether Indians ate these “rotten” foods only when they had no other options, or whether they sometimes desired the potent flavors that fermentation produces.

Joseph Johnson, a Mohegan missionary, wrote in February 1768 that the Oneida (who lived east of the Seneca) kept “rotten fish” from the previous fall “to Season their Samps,” or corn soups.[3] While Johnson seemed repulsed by this practice, the Oneida sought out the taste of fermented fish: “rottener the better they Say as it will Season more broth.”[4] This pungent condiment added variety and flavor to an otherwise repetitive winter diet of corn. As Mintz has also argued, many indigenous cultures rely on “core” staple grains for the bulk of their caloric intake, and then add nutritional value, flavor, and variety with the use of condiments, or “fringe” foods.[5] Where Johnson and the English saw rottenness, the Oneida saw fermentation.

 A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
A hind and a stag of the family of Red-Deer and a Fallow-deer, Wood Engraving after Thomas Bewick.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, English people of the pre-refrigeration era also ate spoiled meat. Recipe books abounded with household hints for camouflaging flesh that had passed its prime. Hannah Glasse instructed cooks that if a joint of venison “stinks, or is musty,” one must rinse it multiple times with water and milk, then “rub it all over with beaten Ginger” and hang it to dry (10). Gervase Markham offered a formula for spoiled venison, that required the cook to boil “a strong brine” with a combination of “strong Ale,” wine vinegar, and salt, to let this mixture cool, and to soak the venison in it overnight (113). Next, the cook would remove the meat from the brine, “presse it well,” then “parboyle it, and season it with Pepper and Salt,” before roasting. These preparations of burying, boiling, washing, and salting to counteract or mask spoiled meat also had their counterparts in Indian cuisine: Samuel Kirkland’s Seneca sister-in-law stewed rancid bear meat and served it with “half a spoonful of salt on one side.”[6]

Since discovering Kirkland’s journal, I’ve been fascinated by the cultural specificity of rotten or fermented food. This specificity is based not just on taste, but also presumably on which bacteria different people’s bodies are accustomed to and will tolerate. I am curious to know if other scholars have found similar cross-cultural examples from the early modern period.

[1] Samuel Kirkland, The Journals of Samuel Kirkland, 18th-Century Missionary to the Iroquois, Government Agent, Father of Hamilton College, ed. Walter Pilkington (Clinton, New York: Hamilton College, 1980), 22.

[2] Ibid, 30.

[3] Joseph Johnson to Eleazar Wheelock, February 10, 1768, The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, ed. James Dow McCallum (Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Daye Press, 1932), 128.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sidney Mintz, “The Anthropology of Food: Core and Fringe in Diet,” India International Centre Quarterly 12, no. 2, Food Culture (June 1985): 193-204.

[6] Kirkland, Journals, 30.


3 thoughts on “Rotten or Fermented?: Disgusting Cross-Cultural Foods in Early America”

  1. Wow, so interesting and well thought of, balancing culture and science. I’d love to read the dissertation you are working on as well. Great topic. And history can repeat itself so I wonder what we can pull from the past to be less wasteful and more sustainable in the future.

  2. Thank you, Sandra! If you’re interested in the history of food waste, Susan Strasser’s book Waste and Want is a fascinating read.

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