Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian."

Some time between 1770 and 1774, Rev. Thomas Gwatkin shared with friends in England his unique insight into aspects of colonial life not usually glimpsed in most contemporary correspondence: eating and drinking. Gwatkin, a 30-year-old, English-born Oxonian who was the professor of natural philosophy and mathematics at the College of William & Mary, and a close friend of Jeremy Bentham's, appears to have taken a rather dim view of the especial fondness of Virginians for food and recreational beverages. Perhaps because of Gwatkin's especially critical eye, this selection gives us a rather entertaining peek into one man's transatlantic perception of life in Williamburg on the very eve of the American Revolution.

"I observed . . . that the natives of Virginia eat greater quantities of animal food than the Inhabitants of Britain. A short account of their manner of living may afford you some entertainment. Their breakfast, like that of the English consists of tea Coffee and Chocolate; and bread or toast and butter, or small Cakes made of flower and butter which are served to Table hot, and are called hoe Cakes from being baked upon a hoe heated for that purpose. They have also harshed meat and homony, Cold beef, and hams upon the table at the same time, and you may as frequently hear a Lady desiring to be helped to a part of one of these dishes as a cup of tea. Their tables at dinner are crowded with a profusion of meat: And the same kind is dressed three or four different ways. The rivers afford them fish in great Abundance: and their Swamps and forests furnish them ducks teale blue-wing, hares, Squirrells, partridges and a great variety of other kinds of fowl. Eating seems to be the predominant passion of a Virginian. To dine upon a single dish is considered as one of the greatest hardships. You can be contented with one joint of meat is a reproach frequently thrown into the teeth of an Englishman. Even one of the fair Sex would be considered as Gluttons in England. Indeed, I am inclined to believe more disorders in this Country arise from too much eating than any other cause whatsoever. In the Afternoon tea and Coffee is generally drank, but with bread or toast and butter. As Supper you rarely see any made dishes. Harshed and Cold meat, roasted fowls, fish of different kinds, tarts and sweetmeats fill up the table. After the cloth is taken away both at dinner and supper; Madeira and punch or toddy is placed upon the table. The first toasts which are given by the Master of the family, are the King; the Queen and the royal family; the Governour and Virginia; a good price for Tobacco. After this, the Company be in a humour to drink, the ladies retire, and the Gentlemen give every man his Lady; then a round of friend[s] succeeds; and afterwards each of the Company gives a Sentiment; then the Gentleman of the house drinks to all the friends of his Company and at last concludes with drinking a good Afternoon or good Evening according to the time of day."
[William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. IX (1952), pp. 81, 83-84]