Fascinating Things People Actually Ate During Colonial Times

Ashley - April 9, 2023

The colonial era was a time of discovery and exploration. Several countries were racing to stake their claim on the recently discovered North American content, and as settlements were established, a new way of life developed for those in the “New World.” One of the many changes for the new settlers was the type of food they ate. While they continued to eat many of the staples from their home country, they also developed new meals based on the animals and plants found in North America. The diet of people in the colonial era was very different than the diet we enjoy today. In this list, you’ll read all about the things people ate in colonial times, and it will make you appreciate what you have in your pantry so much more!

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Tripe is a dish you may have heard of before but probably never had the inclination to try. Tripe refers to the soft inner lining of an animal’s stomach, usually cows or deer. While the raw intestines look very unappetizing, this was a very common food eaten during colonial times and was often served in soups or stews. Tripe is still eaten regularly in many parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and some European countries. Despite its unappealing look, tripe is actually a very healthy food. It’s rich in zinc, selenium, and vitamin B12. Eating tripe probably helped the early colonists keep up with their daily vitamin intake!

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When most people think of porridge, they picture the pre-packaged oatmeal every grocery store sells. Back in colonial times, porridge was mostly made of mashed corn, but settlers would make porridge out of any vegetable they had handy. They would mash the vegetable with milk or water and eat them for any meal, but usually breakfast. This was a great way for them to use up any veggies and enjoy a quick, easy meal.

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Ash Cake/Bread

Ash cake and ash bread were meals commonly made by slaves back in colonial America. Slavery was an awful reality during this time, and slaves were often left to create their meals out of scraps and unwanted food. Ash cake or bread was a corn-based type of bread baked in the ashes of a fire. This is actually still a common food in certain parts of the world, mostly in Arabian countries. It’s also a meal frequently enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts, and you can easily find recipes if you want to try this the next time you go camping.

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While molasses wasn’t eaten by itself, it was still a key ingredient in many dishes during colonial times. This thick, brown product is a byproduct of refining sugar cane into sugar, which was a very arduous task during colonial times. Molasses is known for adding rich sweetness to dishes and was mostly used in rum during this era. Adding molasses to rum was common practice in Great Britain during this era, though that largely ended when the Molasses Tax was passed. This tax was one of the final straws that led to the American Revolution. Molasses never became as popular in the US as it was in Great Britain due to the tax and its impact on the looming revolution.

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Pokeweed is one of many natural resources that Native Americans and colonists relied on during the colonial era. The roots, berries, and leaves of this plant can be used to treat headaches, coughs, and other minor ailments. This was a common thing people consumed during colonial times, but they had to be very careful about the preparation. This type of plant is poisonous, so the stalks and leaves had to be boiled several times before they could be eaten. That’s a lot more work to cure a cough than running out to the nearest drugstore for cough medicine!

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People during the colonial era needed to use every part of an animal when they made their meals. Lower-class Americans generally relied on pigs to put food on their tables, and they were careful to find creative ways to use every part of the animal. Chitlins were a common meal, especially in the south, made from pig intestines. Many people still enjoy chitlins today, and you can often find them at butcher shops and even some restaurants!

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Fried Chicken Livers

We’ve already mentioned how important it was for the early settlers to use every part of an animal, and we’ll probably mention it again! Chickens were another common animal for colonists to raise and slaughter. Eating the liver of many animals is considered respectful to its spirit, and they’re often full of necessary nutrients. Chicken livers are rich in vitamin A, vitamin B, protein, iron, and more! This was a great meal for the colonists, and it’s still served around the world today!

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Opossum Meat

Did you know that opossums are the only marsupial species native to North America? That means they’re related to kangaroos! Opossums were a common game animal that people ate during colonial times. People would often roast the meat and serve it with a side of veggies or corn. Nowadays, opossums aren’t seen as worthwhile game animals and aren’t commonly hunted in North America. They were a super popular meal during the 18th century, but we’re glad that’s gone out of style now!

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Raccoon Meat

People weren’t very picky about where their meals came from during colonial times. Many small game animals that people wouldn’t even consider eating today were common sources of meat back in the day. In these times, there were no massive food production and distribution services like there are today, so people made do with what they had. Raccoons were often hunted and trapped for their meat, along with other small game, like opossums and squirrels. Surprisingly, raccoon meat is still eaten in some parts of the US today!

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Corn was a major staple of Native Americans’ diets, and the early settlers quickly learned the value of using corn to make a variety of meals. Native Americans would grind corn into a meal and then bake it into bread. Colonists did the same once they settled in North America, and cornbread became just as much a staple in their diets. The popularity of cornbread never really waned, and it’s still a widely popular dish throughout North America today!

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Pepper Cake

Did you know that pepper was a newly discovered spice for Europeans in the 18th century? It became massively popular during that time, and anything that was popular in Europe quickly became all the rage in America as well. While people generally use pepper today to give their food a little extra kick, it was mainly used in sweets back then. People would bake pepper cakes that could last for several months when stored at the right temperature. That’s pretty great for a time that didn’t have preservatives!

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Sassafras Leaves

Those into home remedies for curing minor illnesses have probably heard of sassafras tea or used the extract at some point, but back in the 18th century, many people in North America relied on sassafras leaves in their daily lives. This leafy green vegetable was added to stews, gumbos, and soups for a boost of vitamins and minerals. Sassafras tea was used to treat headaches, diarrhea, and rheumatism. Sassafras also has a potent and natural earthy smell, so many Native Americans used these leaves to create perfumes!

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Animal Tongues

As we’ve said before, people living in colonial times were obsessed with using every part of an animal they possibly could. It was part of their way of life and was seen as a way to respect the life of the animal and to extend their food supply to keep themselves and their families alive. All types of animal tongues were roasted, boiled, or fried after being slaughtered. Some people still cook up animal tongues around the world, though it’s much less common than it was during the 18th century.

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Jellied Moose Nose

In addition to making an effort to use every part of an animal, colonists also loved making jellies from their meats! Moose was a commonly hunted animal in certain regions of North America during this time period because they were so large and could provide enough meat for an entire village. While processing the animal, colonists would boil the upper jaw, then take the meat and let it sit in moose broth overnight. The result was a jellied substance that was considered something of a treat during this time period. You can still find recipes to recreate this dish today.

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Salted Fish

They didn’t have refrigerators or artificial preservatives back in colonial times, so people needed to find alternative ways to store their food. Salting fish was one of the most common ways people were able to preserve their food during the long, cold winter months. Also, this technique wasn’t restricted to just fish! People would salt beef, venison, and other meats. Properly salting fish or other meat could keep it from going bad for several months! This technique was a lifesaver during colonial times, and it’s still used in certain parts of the world where modern preservation techniques aren’t easily accessible.

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Humble (Umble) Pie

Humble pie, also known as Umble pie, was a common meal for lower-class citizens in the colonial era. This dish was made from any remaining edible animal scraps or leftovers and apples, spices, and sugar. Humble pie was used for lower-class citizens in many places of the world and even dates back to the middle ages. The rich and well-off would feast on the animal and leave the leftovers for peasants. It’s yet another example of the greed of the rich and the ingenuity of the poor!

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Hasty Pudding

Before you get too excited, this isn’t the type of dessert pudding you’re probably thinking about! Hasty pudding is a simple dish that colonists typically ate for breakfast. It was made by mixing flour or corn with boiling water or milk and eating while warm. Those living in the Americas typically used corn for this meal, while those in Britain traditionally enjoyed it with flour. Corn crops weren’t as popular in Great Britain as they were in the Americas, which gave this dish a decidedly different flavor across the continents.

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Plum Cake

Despite its name, plum cakes could actually be made from many different types of fruits. In America during colonial times, plum cake was typically made out of a few different berries, so it would somewhat resemble a modern-day fruit cake. People generally served plum cake during election times, which gave this treat the alternative name- election cake! Plum cake was also called muster cakes for a time because they were served for the men called to drill with the British Army. Someone should have just named it the cake of many names!

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Everyone knows that famous Christmas song with the line, “A partridge in a pear tree.” Did you know the song is referencing an actual bird? Partridges are medium-sized birds that exist throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa. These non-migratory birds were a common choice for a quick, healthy meal during colonial times. This bird provided people with an easy, quick meal full of protein, flavor, and valuable nutrients. While small game like this isn’t a popular choice for most households anymore, there are still people in some parts of the world who rely on trapping and catching birds like this for their meals.

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Traditional English Tea

We’d be remiss not to mention traditional English tea during this list. Tea was a wildly popular beverage during colonial times and was the perfect addition to every meal. Colonists loved English tea just as much as their friends across the pond, which is why it rankled so badly when the British imposed their tea tax! It was one of the many final straws that led to the American Revolution, and tea never had the same level of popularity in America again. Instead, like true innovative settlers, they replaced it with a different beverage.

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Once Americans ditched English tea, they made the switch to coffee! Coffee became a popular American drink, and it’s still one of the most commonly consumed beverages in the country today. Back in colonial times, coffee wasn’t for everyone. It was actually somewhat of a status symbol because of the time involved in preparing the beverage. Today we have technology that makes getting our cup of joe first thing in the morning an easy task, but back then, you had to work for your caffeination!

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Fish was a staple in many people’s diets during the 18th century, but some fish were more easily caught than others. When the colonists first settled in Jamestown, they caught a gigantic Sturgeon from the James river, and this fish quickly became one of their most reliable food sources! These pre-historic-looking fish can grow to 20 feet in length and weigh up to 1,5000 pounds! We bet the colonists salted a lot of these fish during the wintertime.

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Perry (Fermented Pear Drink)

People loved their fermented beverages during colonial times. Many people still enjoy fermented beverages today, though most people don’t make their own drinks anymore. During the 17th century, the Perry was a fermented pear drink that was highly popular in Britain and France before it made its way over to the Americas. The colonists enjoyed the beverage from time to time, but it never reached the same level of popularity in America as it did overseas.

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Even during colonial times, people enjoyed a treat every now and then. While the colonists couldn’t just pop down to their local supermarket and pick up some brownies or cake, they could make some delicious desserts at home. Syllabub was a type of whipped cream dessert frequently enjoyed by the early settlers in America. You can still find plenty of recipes for this dessert online today, and it honestly looks delicious!

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Swan Meat

While swans have historically been a symbol of beauty, light, and purity, they were also a consistent food source for hungry settlers in colonial times. Most societies don’t put swans on the menu today, but during the 18th century, people couldn’t afford to be picky. Food was never guaranteed, so most wild animals were fair game. Colonists would roast or boil the meat and sometimes use the feathers for decorations and other crafts. One thing about the colonists was they always tried to use every part of the animal and respect the life they’d taken!

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Squirrel Meat

Most people in developed countries today would cringe at the idea of eating one of these little rodents. Squirrels may not look particularly appetizing, but they were a common part of the early settler’s diets back in the 18th century. Squirrels were plentiful and easy to trap, which put them on the menu pretty frequently. Colonists would serve these little guys up in stews or roast them over an open fire. The colonial era was a tough time for picky eaters!

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Pease Porridge

You may recognize the term “pease porridge” from the popular children’s nursery rhyme. It was an incredibly popular dish during colonial times because it was filling and the ingredients were plentiful. This dish was made of boiled legumes and a boiled ham or bacon joint. Many people ate this dish as part of their daily routine, and it was very popular with children. Many people still enjoy a version of this dish today, but it’s usually called split pea soup now!

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Mutton is one of those dishes that everyone hears about people eating during colonial times. But do you actually know what this dish is? For those who didn’t know, mutton is meat from a sheep that’s over two years old. The first part of a sheep’s life was often spent grazing, and families would use their wool to create clothes and blankets. However, when sheep became older, families would slaughter them for their meat. They would prepare the mutton in a variety of ways, and this is a dish you can still find served all over the world.

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Mushroom Katchup

No, that’s not a spelling error! Mushroom katchup was a popular condiment during colonial times. The early settlers in America would make condiments out of things like mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies, or oysters, but not tomatoes. These sauces were enjoyed during mealtimes but weren’t used too frequently because of the time involved in preparing them. Tomatoes were actually thought to be poisonous during the colonists’ early years. A version of modern-day ketchup didn’t arrive in America until the time of the American Civil War!

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Biscuits & Gravy

You can’t get through a list of common foods eaten during the colonial era without seeing biscuits and gravy somewhere on that list! Biscuits and gravy were a staple for many people and were frequently enjoyed as a breakfast treat. This dish became popular in the south during the Revolutionary War and quickly gained popularity throughout the colonies. It’s still a very popular dish today and is found in most restaurants across the United States.

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Bear Fat

Colonists had to make do with what was available to them, and bears were plentiful across the colonies. Hunters would kill bears for their meat and fur, but there was another use for these animals that enjoyed colonists to hunt them. People during this time would melt down their fat to create a shortening-like substance that they would use for cooking and baking. It worked well for frying and gave foods a little additional pop of flavor and nutrients.

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Apple Pie

Nothing screams American quiet as well as traditional apple pie! Apple pie was something enjoyed in Europe, and colonists took apples with them when they made the trek to the New World. Apple trees were surprisingly adept at surviving the harsh winters in North America, which allowed colonists to have easy access to this delicious fruit. Apple pies became one of the most popular treats enjoyed during the 18th century and were often seasoned with a little nutmeg and cinnamon rather than sugar.

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While these biscuits may not look very appetizing, they were a necessary staple during colonial times. Hardtack is a type of hard bread or biscuit made from super simple ingredients like flour, water, and salt. These biscuits were very popular because they were long-lasting, easy to travel with, and easy to make. Many people still eat these types of biscuits today, and soldiers in the U.S. military tend to get these in their MREs, although they’re often called crackers now.

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Turtle Soup

Turtle populations were soaring in the 18th century, and they made for an easy, delectable dish during colonial times. The rich and upper-class colonists often enjoyed soup made from snapping turtles and occasionally other species like painted or box turtles. However, turtle soup is no longer a common dish in North America because so many turtle species are on the endangered list. We wonder if the colonists’ love for turtle soup had something to do with that!

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People certainly knew how to be creative when making new beverages during colonial times. Posset is a type of hot drink made of milk curdled with wine or ale. Lots of spices were often added to this drink which was a staple at festivals and celebrations and was used as a remedy for minor illnesses. The colonists put their own spin on this drink when they moved to the New World, and over time the drink changed significantly. Many historians believe that alterations to the posset are what led to the creation fo the syllabus!

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Pigeon Meat

That’s right, along with squirrels, raccoons, and sturgeon, colonists also ate pigeons! Pigeons were everywhere, easy to catch, and contained a decent amount of meat. All these factors made them a coveted food source for colonists, who couldn’t afford to be picky about where their meat came from. Many people today may balk at the idea of eating these pest-like birds, but they were a treat mainly enjoyed by higher-class colonists due to the time it took to prepare them.

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The name scrapple may sound like a fun board game or drink, but it was actually another way colonists managed to use every part of animals back in the day. The edible scraps leftover from butchered sheep and pigs would be used to create a type of meatloaf known as scrapple. Many of the organs would be used in this mixture, and it’s something colonists relied on to feed their families. You can still find recipes for this dish today, and many farmers still use this technique. Waste not, want not!

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Snake Meat Stew

Colonists really weren’t picky about what they ate. Any food that didn’t poison them was considered good food, and this applied to all different types of game animals. Snakes may not be your first thought when you think of a delicious stew, but colonists enjoyed eating snake stew on occasion. Apparently, snake meat has a very mild texture and flavor that’s very similar to fish! The next time you go on a trip somewhere and see snake meat stew on the menu, give it a try!

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While many people today enjoy yogurt and other fermented milk products, they tend to avoid thinking about the actual process of making those products. During colonial times, many people enjoyed clabber, which is a very basic type of yogurt. Colonists would often season it with pepper, nutmeg, or cinnamon to add some flavor to offset the fermented taste. It’s not too dissimilar from homemade yogurt today, although the name is a little off-putting!

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Tons of people love lobster and consider it a delicacy today, but it was a common and well-loved food back during colonial times. Unlike today, lobster was fairly cheap and easy to come by during the colonial era. People often used lobsters as bait for eels rather than eating them, and since they were so cheap, eating them regularly was actually a sign of being lower class! Times have certainly changed, as eating lobster is now seen as a treat beyond the reach of lower-class citizens.

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Calves Foot Jelly

This is another example of colonists turning their leftover animal products into jelly-like substances. People couldn’t be picky during colonial times, and it was necessary to find creative ways to use every part of slaughtered animals. Creating jelly from parts of the animals, like calves’ feet, allowed colonists to stretch their food source and provide for their families for an extra day or two. There are actually still tons of recipes available today for how to create this substance, and some people even use sugar and other seasonings to turn it into a dessert-like substance!

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Ice Cream

You may not have expected ice cream to be on this list, but it was a typical treat during colonial times! The ice cream didn’t taste or look exactly the same back then as it does today, but it was a popular frozen treat that people enjoyed regularly. There were some fruit flavors that people wouldn’t bat an eye at today, but there were also several odd flavors that most people wouldn’t touch nowadays! Some ice creams were flavored with eel, asparagus, or chestnuts.

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Eel Meat

Most people wouldn’t consider eels a delicacy today, but they were a hugely popular food source during the 18th century. People loved eels so much that they used lobsters as bait to catch the slimy fish. People would create stews with eel meat, make jellied eel, or bake them into a pie! It was a plentiful and filling food source during a time when food insecurity was very high, so we can’t really blame the early settlers for enjoying a little eel pie.

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Roasted Beaver Tails

Beavers generally aren’t hunted anymore because they’re a protected species, but they were a very popular game animal during colonial times. People trapped beavers for their pelts and for their tails! The tails are said to have a gamey flavor, but they were mostly just fat. The nutrients in beaver tails probably helped many trappers survive the harsh winters in North America, and it’s one of the many reasons why these animals were hunted so fiercely. The early settlers had to do what they had to do to get by because their way of life was so much harsher. We’re certainly glad things have changed!