The politics of pie: Cuisine from the American Revolution

An 1831 Staffordshire plate decorated with a Thomas Cole landscape made Nancy Siegel wonder what had been served on it, and after poring over 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, letters, and recipes, she discovered that female “culinary activists” used cuisine as a way to combat injustice. An 1831 Staffordshire plate decorated with a Thomas Cole landscape made Nancy Siegel wonder what had been served on it, and after poring over 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, letters, and recipes, she discovered that female “culinary activists” used cuisine as a way to combat injustice.

Some study history through hieroglyphics or bone fragments. Nancy Siegel looks at what we ate, and the political statements food made about the fledgling American nation during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Every school child learns about the Boston Tea Party and the dumping of highly taxed tea into Boston Harbor. Not so well known is that the American revolutionaries’ response was to concoct blends from fruits and herbs and dub them Liberty Tea.

“I tell the history of the American Revolution by what we ate or what we celebrated in our dining rooms or living rooms,” says Siegel, a professor of art history and culinary history at Towson University.

Culinary history is a relatively new field that has “really expanded and exploded” in the past 10 years, thanks to the farm-to-table movement and the desire to grow heirloom varieties, says Siegel. “Academia is finally catching up.”

She became aware of how food could become politicized when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. After France refused to join the American military action, some Americans refused to order French fries, calling them freedom fries instead. “I thought this was the craziest thing I’d ever heard,” says Siegel.

But it also made her wonder what had been served in the English Staffordshire dishes, decorated with the landscapes of painter Thomas Cole, which she’d been researching for a book on Cole’s Hudson River School art movement. Siegel became convinced there were female landscape painters active in the movement, and as she pored over diaries and archival repositories, she found 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, letters, and “hundreds and hundreds of recipes,” she says.

She calls the women of that era “culinary activists” who used cuisine as a way to “combat injustice and taxation” from England, first by boycotting and then by celebrating.

By calling a plain cake an Independence Cake, “it’s imbued with larger meaning during this tumultuous period,” she says.

“These were women who were not out to make history—but they cooked history,” says Siegel.

The recipe for Election Cake—a yeast-risen fruit cake—already existed in Connecticut before the Revolutionary War. But as Election Cake, it celebrated the new democracy, she says. So did Washington Pie, Federal Cake, and Democratic Tea Cakes.

Food has been political in other eras, notes Siegel. Abolitionists in the 19th century refused to use sugar cane, which was produced from enslaved labor, and sweetened with sugar beets instead.

Reading political treatises can be cumbersome, says Siegel, but “everyone eats. It’s the great equalizer. It demonstrates the support that comes out of the kitchen.”

Siegel will discuss A Taste of Democracy: Federal Cake, Liberty Tea, and Culinary Activism in the Early Republic at 7pm on October 3 at Stratford Hall in an event sponsored by Virginia Humanities. Register online at virginiahumanities.org.

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