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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.


I enjoy reading stories about the history and ancestors who helped build the land to what it is today. I am originally from Rhode Island but live in Kentucky. I am a single mother and took in two other children. I am 51 but I think education is important, so I am going to college to achieve a degree in culinary. There is something appealing about the southern history of culinary. I remember the first time I ever ate soup beans and corn bread, my grandmother placed bacon in the bottom of a cast iron skillet and poured the corn meal batter over it and baked it, best corn bread by far!
I ran across this article by accident while trying to find information to do an informative speech, Glad I ran across it, thank you for sharing your story, God Bless..

This article reminds me of my mother who lived into the 21st century as well as other older women in my family and neighborhood so it's not just an 1800s thing.Most women today can't cook because of several reasons but I believe the main one is to be a good cook it has to be something that gives the person joy and satisfaction, not just a necessary chore.

Not relevant to my search!!!!!!!!!

I like to cook too.

Same, I love cooking a lot!!!!!

In 1800s, cooking takes more time and energy of the average housewife. No big grocery stores were there. They usually go out and buy vegetables and fruits. Lots of efforts were there to cook. But now in 21’s there are big grocery stores are there where people can get everything in just one store. Now a day’s people even not put lots of effort to cook. Whenever they feel to have something new they just go to restaurants and have food. And now a days even ready to cook food packages are also available in the market. So it’s been easier for people who do not want to waste their time in cooking.

Waste time cooking? What do you know about cooking. I am a chef from Ukraine originally and I tell you to eat properly you do need spend time cooking. You need to know how to ge5 best out of vegetables, frost, meat, infused dishes and with minimal waste! Food also a medicine and need to be consumed right. I work in restaurants and I tell you home made food can never be compar3 to restaurant food. They don’t use same quality produce, don’t cook with care and love as you would at home for your loved one., does not matter a class... Think about it!!! It is about loving yourselves, your body, respecting and loving nature and wonderfull fruit, veggies etc. we are privel3ged to consume without waiste. Does Western can understand that, it is a different question!
P.S. pizza originated in Italy and present a flat bread, that’s it. Western pizza most calories consistent and health destroing ‘creation’ same as a gumburger, sandvithch etc...

I agree! I am a composer, however I am a Chef de Partie. The 1800’s (Escaffier) is a great time for culinary arts.


I pray for Ukraine.

We no longer have the ‘right’ to enjoy good food. Now we pay more than double for natural food — ‘ organic.’

Pardon my Russian. Я живю три года b Odece. I will go back soon. The American food is killing me, and I cook as much as I can here.

Western Society is true Socialism. They even threaten US until we sign confessions.

God bless,


I live in Western society. I don't waste words by insulting any person or society. I work 40 hours a week and have 6 children. 2 biological and 4 adopted. I plan my families meals a week in advanced and strive to prepare healthy, substantial meals for my family. I grow my own vegetables. I find it disheartening when people make blanket judgements on Western society. I don't insult anyone and wish others would have the common curtesy of doing the same but I suppose my morals are somewhat different than others. Thank you.

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