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.

“Look’d Like Milk”: Breastmilk Substitutes in New England’s Borderlands

By Carla Cevasco 

Captured by the Abenaki in 1724, the English colonist Elizabeth Hanson fretted as “my daily Travel and hard Living made my Milk dry almost quite up.” As Hanson recorded in her captivity narrative, God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty (1728), she watched her baby become “very poor and weak,” so thin that she could “perceive all its Joynts from one End of the Babe’s Back to the other.” Among English women taken captive by Native Americans in colonial New England, food shortage and the rigor of travel, as well as perhaps the psychological anxiety of captivity, caused many women’s milk to fail, or exacerbated other breastfeeding difficulties. Early modern medical authorities recognized the urgency of infant feeding and the difficulty of nursing: while breastfeeding was physically demanding for mothers, infants who were separated from their mothers often perished.[1]

At home, English women likely would have had access to remedies to help them with breastfeeding problems. Gervase Markham’s The English House-Wife (first published in 1615) offered two concoctions “To increase a womans milke.” One required the woman to consume “good store of Colworts,” a cabbage-like plant, that had been boiled “in strong posset-ale,” a drink of curdled dairy and beer. Another remedy consisted of “the buds and tender crops of Briony,” a common wild vine, in “broth or pottage.” Other nursing women also suckled the children of women who could not nurse themselves.[2] But women in captivity were usually isolated from the social support networks that would have provided them with alternate sources of breastmilk or treatments to increase their milk.

Instead, like other early moderns, women in captivity relied on substitutes to nourish their children. For much of her journey, Hanson used “Broth of the Beaver, or other Guts,” to feed her child “as well as I could.” When those foods were not available, Hanson drank “cold Water” and then “let it fall on my Breast” for the baby to suck “with what it could get from the Breast.”

Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Porcelain figure of a woman breastfeeding, 18th century. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Captives like Hanson found alternative support networks, who offered substitute foods and fulfilled the roles that other women or physicians would have played in helping mothers at home. When Hanson’s baby became emaciated and barely able to eat with a “weak Appetite,” an Abenaki woman noticed Hanson’s “uneasiness” at the child’s frailty and offered to help. She instructed Hanson “to take the Kernels of Walnuts, and clean them, and beat them with a little Water.” The resulting mixture “look’d like Milk,” Hanson noted. Next, the woman told Hanson to add “a little of the finest of the Indian Corn Meal, and boyl it a little together.”

The resulting mixture, to Hanson’s relief (and the child’s), was “nourishing to the Babe.” The woman explained to Hanson that “with this kind of Diet the Indians did often nurse their Infants.” Like Hanson, Abenaki women would have experienced periods of food shortage or had trouble breastfeeding for other reasons, and the combination of water, walnuts, and corn provided invaluable hydration, protein, and carbohydrates to nursing children. English women who were in the process of weaning their children often would have fed them similar paps or gruels.[3]

 

[1] Marylynn Salmon, “The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 2 (Winter, 1994), 260-262, 250.

[2] Ibid, 257, 259, 262.

[3] Ibid, 256.