Picturing Seething Meat in the New World

By Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Early English settlers in the New World possessed very specific ideas about food, its effect on their bodies, and the social factors influencing who ate what and when and how and why. Once they arrived in the New World, they faced very real challenges, not just because of the lack of food–although that obviously played a major role at times. But these beliefs followed them. As Trudy Eden puts it in The Early American Table, they saw the new foods as “savage” and  “feared a regular diet of native foods could very possibly transform them into a lower class of human beings” (4).

The debate over the origins of American food has taken some strange swerves over the centuries. The influence of Native Americans and African slaves on early American cooking remains somewhat nebulous. And yet the foods of the New World “first peoples” did make inroads on the English kitchen.

Some of the reasons for this confusion over the impact of Native American foodways lie in the

  1. lack of written information by Native Americans;
  2. inability of archaeological information to convey how food was cooked, particularly the exact ingredients and how they were put together;
  3. records left by early European explorers, who interpreted Native American foodways through their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century worldviews.

Early chroniclers possessed an ulterior motive: commerce. Through their writings, they hoped to entice investors and colonists to the New World. For that reason, it is important to take all the verbiage with the proverbial grain of salt. And the artwork as well.

One of those early explorers and chroniclers was Englishman Thomas Hariot (1560-1621), who spent the year 1585-1586 in Virginia. He arrived in the New World via one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships, the Tiger, under the leadership of Sir Richard Grenville. The colonization attempts failed, but Hariot–and artist John White (1549-1593)–returned to England with timeless and invaluable material from their explorations of Roanoake Island in North Carolina.

Image Credit: British Library.
Image Credit: British Library.

Hariot could well be dubbed the first Anglo-American ethnographer. Prior to his trip, Hariot learned some rudimentary Algonquian language from two Virginia Algonquian men (Manteo and Wanchese) who had been brought to England by Raleigh in 1584. Hariot recorded his observations of the New World, while White created detailed watercolors of their surroundings and Alongonquian activities such as cooking. Together, they left a valuable record of the culture and eating habits of the Ossomocomuck (Algonquians): A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, which first appeared in Latin in 1588. This was the first account of the New World written by an English author. Only eight of the original copies now exist, but the material is available in digitized form as well.

In 1590, at the urging of Richard Hakluyt the younger, Theodore de Bry (a Liège engraver) printed a third edition of Hariot’s 48-page work. Hariot added headnotes to De Bry’s engravings of 1590, with engravings based on White’s original drawings.

John White, "The Seething of Their Meate in Poots of earth". Courtesy of the British Museum.
John White, “The Seething of Their Meate in Poots of earth”. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Hariot added headnotes to De Bry’s engravings in the 1590 edition. John White’s original drawing of cooking in a pot became quite something else under the engraving pen of one of De Bry’s workshop artists, Gijsbert van Veen.

G. Veen, "Their seetheynge of their meate in earthen pottes". Image Credit: British Library.
G. Veen, “Their seetheynge of their meate in earthen pottes”. Image Credit: British Museum.

That De Bry himself elaborated on most of White’s other illustrations as well, suggests the care needed in interpreting these drawings and engravings…

My next post on Thursday will consider the book’s descriptions of Algonquian cooking.


4 thoughts on “Picturing Seething Meat in the New World”

  1. Everyone who has studied this period at all, has looked at these prints. Although they are certainly not totally accurate, they are still fascinating. Looking forward to the next installment, Cindy!

  2. Hmm, a lot depends on whether the fire is made of big logs or small, right? Because the print maker is assuming they are pretty hefty. I did a bit of poking about trying to find out what is the maximum size of a clay pot. Not easy to get at but the largest chimney pots come in at 30 inches high. And very, very heavy.

    So I reckon it’s safe to assume that at the max these pots would have been 2 foot 6 inches high. Certainly you rarely get Mexican pots even that high even from experienced pot makers. 18 inches is commoner.

    The engraver depicts them at 3 to 4 feet? Is this three stone cookery? It seems as if you can spot a stone under the pot in the drawing. Or may be it’s a pointy leg?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *