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Hearth to Hearth: Food at the Tavern

Hearth to Hearth: Food at the Tavern – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2003

By Alice Ross

Before the current age of entertainment, taverns in the 18th and early 19th centuries were the important social centers of most communities. They provided the men of most communities a place to gather for drinking, celebrations, catching up on the news, conducting business, gaming, and dining. (Women were rarely patrons, and when they were found there it was as cooks.) They also offered overnight accommodations to travelers, although in many cases this meant sharing a bed with one or more strangers, with no guarantee of clean or even aired linen. They were also the early restaurants and served meals, sometimes to a group of regulars. The standards and qualities of taverns and inns were extremely variable, depending on the social and economic nature of their clientele, their locations, and the skills of their keepers.

For example, Samuel Fraunces, who established and ran the Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, was a superb cook who attracted those of some means and the taste for a fine meal. His table was well known to George Washington, a man of the upper class accustomed to fashionable food of high standards. Washington engaged Fraunces during the War of Independence, and when the war ended Fraunces prepared the great banquet served to the officers honoring Washington’s farewell to the troops, and then accompanied him to the White House and Mount Vernon.

A tavern run by this kind of chef achieved the heights of fine food. Cooked by professional and well-trained caterers and chefs, privileged patrons came for a variety of soups (often turtle), meats and fish, side dishes of vegetables, fruits, and preserved and pickled side dishes. Dinners included a variety of well-sauced and complex “made dishes,” and sweet cakes and puddings that were the mark of a talented chef. There was no lack of fine wine, ciders, beers, and spirits. The appearance of the table – usually symmetrical arrangements of dishes in a seated buffet arrangement – followed London fashion as dictated by such important cook books authors as Mrs. Bradley or Mrs. Raffald. Such tavern meals fed the delegates to governmental sessions in Williamsburg, Hartford, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, as well as local patrons and travelers. Kitchens were well equipped to turn out large numbers of meals, using the clock jacks that turned long spits at the hearth, large ovens for quantities of requisite breads and pies, and numbers of large pots and kettles, spiders, griddles, elaborate molds, etc.

Not all urban taverns were that sophisticated and fashionable. Most fell below that high standard but were nevertheless wholesome and delicious, if simple. Their cuisine provided good local cooking prepared by local women, and was much like fine home cooking. Lewis Miller’s sketchbook (1819) recorded daily life in York, Pennsylvania, and praised the local taverns. His sketches portrayed breads rising for brick oven baking, large covered cast-iron pots hanging over fire and boiling or simmering away, coffee and tea pots, fish in a spider, plucked fowl, sausages being smoked and fried, and sweet potatoes. Lewis thought highly of the cooks in these taverns, declaring that “No Better And good Cooks Can be found no where to prepare Victuals for the table As these Taverns … See Mrs. Hersh in 1809. She could take every bone out of A Chicken for the table it was good to carve for the customers at her Tavern.”

On many of the important travel routes, local laws required that accommodations for travelers be made available every few miles to insure that no one was stranded at night-fall. If no one in the area wanted to set up a commercial establishment, a wealthier family might offer to set aside a room – often in a separate wing or basement – where room and board were provided, and someone appointed to handle the food, sleeping arrangements, and care of the horses. Such ordinaries, along with taverns and inns, were licensed and regulated as to their numbers in an area; their rates were likewise controlled and required posting.

For lucky travelers using horseback and stagecoach on poor roads, the tavern, inn, or ordinary (all precursors of the modern hotel) provided a clean bed and a satisfying meal, but this was not always the case. Samuel Vaughan was one of the luckier ones, as his travel diary (1787) listed common meals of “ham, fowl, fresh meat and fish, corn breads and wheat breads, butter, eggs, milk, and cheese.” Others were not as fortunate and took “pot luck” in the true sense of the term. Tavern-keeping in rural areas was likely to be an adjunct to a farmer’s or artisan’s full-time work and his wife’s usual round of domestic responsibilities. In many a tavern of this type one was forced to settle for an evening porridge or cornbread and tea, and be grateful to have it. Daniel Fisher’s travel diary (1755) noted that he happily ate “anything the family was eating and willing to share.” Not so fortunate in her meals was Mrs. Sarah Knight, a rare woman traveling alone from Boston to New York (1704). She found little to praise, disparaging the food she encountered in taverns and inns on her route and passing up the “mangled chicken fricassee” and a cornbread made with pumpkin. It was truly the luck of the road.

Tavern menus depended on the economics and ethnicity of the clientele, the season, the region, and rural or urban location. As much of the food was prepared by the wife of the keeper, it reflected her background, skills, and preferences. Tavern cooks used the same ingredients available to local families, depending on root cellars, gardens, barns and gardens. For example, at this time of year the only chicken eaten was likely to be a young hen that was not producing enough eggs, that became the basis of a festive chicken pot pie or stew. Caponized roosters may have been available for roasting. Fish, however, was plentiful. Root cellars, now emptied of last year’s produce, were replaced by young fresh beans, corn, squash, and other summer vegetables and salads, along with berries, and orchard fruits, and a wealth of dairy products. Such a meal might also tap the smoke house hams, a result of winter butchering. However, just a few months earlier in April there were few fruits and vegetables (too late for root cellars and too early for gardens). Salt meats from the winter slaughtering and fish abounded. Some farm animals were killed young and served fresh as lamb, veal, and spring chickens (all usually male and culled out of flocks and herds because they had little value in propagating, egg or dairy production).

Recipe: Tavern Biscuit

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, 1824

“To one pound of flour, add half a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter, some mace and nutmeg powdered, and a glass of brandy or wine: wet it with milk and when well kneaded, roll it thin, cut it in shapes, and bake it quickly.”

Lewis Miller, describing the York taverns, noted that “The [sic] had plenty of raw materials to cook them, Beef, Veal, ham, Mutton, Pork, and fish, oysters, Poultry, Eggs, Butter Cheese, milk and honey, And all kind of vegetables and fruit.” He did not specify one time of year when this would be available, but if this was not a summary of year-round provisions, it might well be spring or summer.

Locality had everything to do with it. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick described Nantucket tavern cooking: “Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name: for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes.”

Melville’s description of the dining scene begins with a description of a “warm savory steam from the kitchen:” that drew their curiosity; “…but when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” In Nantucket, as in other localities, people cooked what was at hand.

Similarly, one could expect to be served in the style of the local ethnicity. Dutch taverns offered their best cheeses; their penchant for sour flavors might be evident in their own cabbage recipes, heavily vinegared. The English beef – preferably a roast – was often on the table of a British family tavern, and varieties of sausage flavored in the German way were served in Pennsylvania.

The equipment found in taverns was commensurate with the level of the fare; while Fraunces had his share of ornate molds, many others were limited to the standard basics of farm kitchen. As so much of the offering was liquid, ale slippers and posnet cups were on hand, along with the irons for heating drinks and punch bowls, abundant plates, bowls, mugs and glasses.

Tavern food, being so much like home cooking in so many cases, is not easy to find designated as such in early cookbooks. One exception is Mary Randolph’s Tavern Biscuit. This is a biscuit in the English use of the word, and is more like what Americans would call a cookie.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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