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Cooking in the 1800s

Originally published as "When Dinner Wasn’t Quick and Easy"

By Courtney Hybarger
Reprinted with permission from Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2007.
Tar Heel Junior Historian Association, NC Museum of History

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Kitchen at Allen House, Alamance County, N.C., where John and Rachel Allen lived with their family in the late 1700s.Today’s rapidly increasing demands and hectic schedules make it challenging for a family to dine together. Many dinners include fast food or carryout delivery from places like KFC or McDonald’s. When families do have time to prepare a meal, it is rarely “from scratch.” Technology that we often take for granted—such as microwaves and refrigerators—has greatly affected what we eat and how we eat it.

Modern meals are planned around the family’s schedule, but this was not the case two hundred years ago. In fact, two hundred years ago, the family planned its schedule around meals!

During the early 1800s, cooking dominated the time and energy of the average housewife. There were no big grocery stores where families could go to purchase food, and eating out was truly a rare treat, usually possible only when traveling. Most fruits and vegetables were grown on the farmstead, and families processed meats such as poultry, beef, and pork. People had seasonal diets. In the spring and summer months, they ate many more fruits and vegetables than they did in the fall and winter. During those colder seasons, families found ways to preserve their food.

The three main ways of curing (the process of preserving food) during this time included drying, smoking, and salting. Each method drew moisture out of foods to prevent spoiling. Fruits and vegetables could be dried by being placed out in the sun or near a heat source. Meat products could be preserved through salting or smoking. A salt cure involved rubbing salt into the meat, which was then completely covered in salt and placed in a cool area for at least twenty-eight days. During this time, more salt was constantly added. When the meat was no longer damp, it was washed, then shelved or bagged and left to age. Families would hang meat preserved through a smoke cure in rooms or buildings with fire pits. For a month, the meat was constantly exposed to smoke, which dried it out while adding flavor. Using different kinds of wood for the fire, such as hickory or oak, could produce different tastes.

A typical day on the farm began very early. Women rose and built the fire based on the meals planned for that day. Families who could afford to have detached kitchens—kitchens in buildings separate from the house—did so for several reasons. The kitchen often was hot, smoky, and smelly. Most North Carolina families did not have the resources for a separate kitchen, though, and the hearth provided the center of home life and family activity. With no ovens or electricity, women prepared meals on the hearths of brick fireplaces. They used different types of fires and flames to prepare different types of food. For example, a controllable fire was used to roast and toast, while boiling and stewing required a smaller flame.

To use all of the fire’s energy, families shoveled coals and ash underneath and onto the lids of Dutch ovens. Standing on three legs and available in a wide array of sizes, the cast-iron Dutch oven was one of the most important tools found on the hearth. It was used to prepare several types of food and allowed cooking from both the top and the bottom. Dutch ovens evolved into woodstoves, common in homes of the later 1800s and early 1900s before most people got electricity at home.

Preparing meals was not just a matter of starting a fire for cooking. Spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and seasonings, like salt and pepper, had to be ground up with mortars and pestles. Milk had to be brought in from the family dairy cow and cream and butter made from it. After someone brought in the milk, it usually sat out for about an hour. The cream rose to the top, separating from the milk. Women placed this cream into a butter churn and beat it until it hardened, first into whipped cream and eventually into butter!

Every family member contributed to the production and preparation of meals. Men and boys spent most of their time outdoors. Chores included working crops in the fields, feeding larger livestock, and hunting. Diets included wild game, such as deer and turkeys. Women and girls worked mainly in the kitchen and fed smaller livestock.

When it came time to butcher animals, families joined with their neighbors to share the workload and the meat. Pork was the staple meat in the Southeast until the 1940s. Hogs proved more manageable than their much larger counterparts, cows. The taste of pork also improved with curing. Neighbors often gathered in the fall, using the time to get their work done but also to catch up, sharing news and gossip. What began as a chore turned into a social event. This was also the case at harvesttime. Neighbors pitched in to bring in crops such as corn and wheat. After the work was done, everyone might celebrate with feasts, bonfires, and dancing.

Clearly, meal preparation two hundred years ago involved several more steps than it does now. Much like today, families usually ate three daily meals. The main meal in the 1800s, however, was not the large evening meal that is familiar to us today. Rather, it was a meal called dinner, enjoyed in the early afternoon. Supper was a smaller meal eaten in the evening.

A big difference between the way people eat today compared with long ago is the work and time needed. For modern families, food and meals are merely an afterthought in the schedule. Two hundred years ago, food and food preparation stood at the center of the family’s daily lifestyle. Without the advances in technology that help us store, preserve, and prepare food, men and women would spend much of their time getting meals ready to eat. Instead of calling pizza delivery, imagine spending all day in front of a fire!

At the time of this article’s publication, Courtney Hybarger was a historic site interpreter at President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville.



America's Story from America's Library, Library of Congress.

Fisher, M. F. K. (1974) "Food: The Arts (Fine and Culinary) of 19th Century America," New York Times.

Food in America, Digital History.

North Carolina Historic Sites.

Image Credit

Fireplace at Allen House. Photo by David Walbert for LEARN NC.


Hi, everyone! Just reading the post for my son first grade proyect. This answer is for Abe:
The taken warred from Montain, spring, well, rivers, also from the rain ( if they doesn't have easy access to get it, they colecting storage for all kind of use. I'm sorry for my writing inglish but I want to share my History too.

I come from the Caribbean Dominican Republic
I born I grow in the city. Every vacation or time to share with the family, We traveling so far and go to many places. I learning a lot stuff from those people went I was to young. Now I'm turning in 41 and I living in a farm with my kids and husband. I'll take carer of all my animal also make my own garden to supply our table, all by me self. I'm enjoy and is hard to do it with this weather. Iam a woman and where I live is Florida, but, locate in the central part. Between Tampa and Orlando. I think if good. I love practice all tha I learning. I never stop learning. Enveryday I learning something new "yes I have time".

This is very interesting! I married into an long line of farming and still to this day I learned special insight to how they use to do it. I mean we farm with high tech machinery but I use old fashion gardening tools. make our own preserves and jams and juice from our land. Can and freeze our food, eat seasonally use Dutch oven and cast iron skillets and grease them with lard I stay home with the kids and spend all my time in the kitchen making all our food from scratch the long generation of this family I'm in eat lard bacon ham beef and crackers just covered in butter and these days everyone says this diet is going to kill you but I've never seen such healthy people including myself!

The thing is I would bet all of the people in your family are extremely active - always moving around and doing things. That diet would kill more sedentary people who aren't as active because they don't burn off the calories they take in. Also consider that food prepared without unnatural preservatives or cooking processes is far healthier than the counterpart found in grocery stores.

Thank you for sharing your story with us!

Mike Millner, NC Government & Heritage Library

Hello, We just moved into a restored 1800's Farmhouse and I would love to know more about the lifestyle back then and the Farmhouse itself back then. Are there resources I can go to or picture books I can buy?

Dear Sharon,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and sharing your question.  That's a great question.  

NCpedia does have some additional articles on farm life.  Here is one:  And here are search results in the resource generally:

While farming and farm life in the 1800s may generally have been similar across the U.S., there were regional differences.  There were also technological advancements throughout the century that would have influenced architecture and farm life itself.  You may want to investigate resources specific to the state where your house is. 

If you are interested specifically in North Carolina, a book published by the NC Dept. of Agriculture in 1989 detailing the history of farming and farm development in the state -- North Carolina Century Farms: 100 years of continuous agricultural heritage ---is available online at  

And here are search results in WorldCat for North Carolina farm history (subject search: Farms North Carolina History) -- You may find something useful in this search.  If you are interested in a different state, you could do a similar search for that state.  WorldCat will also show you if a particular book is located in a library near you.  And if you are interested in purchasing it, could you could with a book retailer.  

I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Kelly Agan

This site is cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This site is soooo cool shows us how times have changed.

I can't believe there's no mention of water. It's so hard to find information online about Canada's water history. What did these people drink? Surely they didn't survive off the water from their fruits, veges and animals.

They dug wells if they didn’t have a stream.

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