When you head to either your friendly neighborhood caterer, your own cookbook shelf, or your favorite group of church ladies to work out your wedding reception menu, a great many concerns will affect your final choices: price, personal taste, known food issues among your nearest and dearest (allergies, moral or religious dietary restrictions, cousin Wendy’s legendary phobia of Brussels sprouts), cultural expectations, etc.
But there’s one thing that most likely won’t even enter your thoughts: availability.
We’re spoiled for choice today. If strawberries aren’t in season, we can get them from another hemisphere or an agricultural concern that creates the correct circumstances for strawberries to grow all year round. If we want lemongrass, it doesn’t have to grow nearby. Freezing techniques allow us to have duck, venison, or lamb whatever the time of year. Corn on the cob in December? Not a problem.
Back through the mists of time, though, what you ate depended far more heavily on where you were and what time of year it happened to be. If you wanted oysters but lived inland, you might well be out of luck. If the only fruit trees in the local orchards were apple and peach, then good luck coming up with oranges. Oh, and if you wanted a cake, it took much stronger arms to whisk the ingredients since you wouldn’t have a nice stand mixer to whip the butter and eggs for you. Excuse me for a moment while I go pet my KitchenAid.
I’m back now.
So what might a typical early American bride have served at her wedding feast? I just happen to have run across a couple of examples of what they might have served.
“A Three-day Wedding Feast
In Stonington, Connecticut, in 1726, Temperance Tealleys was wed to the Reverend William Worthington from Saybrook. Because of the large number of guests expected, a two-day celebration was planned. Elaborate advance preparations commenced for the feast. Chairs, tables, dishes, and utensils were borrowed from the neighbors. Folloing the marriage ceremony…tankards of spiced hard [alcoholic] cider were passed…The main course was family-style and consisted of fish or clam chowder, stewed oysters, roasted pig, venison, duck, potatoes, baked rye bread, Indian cornbread and probably pumpkin casserole. A dessert of Indian pudding studded with dried plums and served with a sauce made from West Indian molasses, butter, and vinegar followed. And they did have coffee. The tablecloths were removed and trays of nutmeats and broken blocks of candy made from maple sugar, butter, and hickory nuts…Outside the front door stood a gigantic punch bowl, hollowed out from a boulder, filled with hard cider combined with West Indian products such as sugar, lemons, and limes…After the dignitaries and most honored guests were served on the first day, and after the bride and groom left on horseback for Saybrook, there was a second day of feasting for the second-rated guests. The third day of feasting was a surprise, for some friendly Mohawks and Pequot Indians appeared…and more chowder and roast pig were served to them. (Information courtesy of the Stonington Historical Society.)”
—The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook, Mary Donovan [Praeger:New York] 1975 (p. 69)
Clearly the bride’s family had some money since the feast includes sugar and citrus fruits had been imported from the West Indies. Of course it also helped that there were busy seaports through most of New England. Had the family been situated more inland, it would have been more difficult and more expensive to try to get those limes. Most of the menu, however, was clearly locally produced. The coastal area meant saltwater seafood, including shellfish. Hickory nuts and maple are common in New England. The region is no surprise looking at this menu.
And can we take a moment to love the bride’s name? Temperance Tealleys! It sounds as though it comes from a Dickens novel. Love it.
Oh, and that cake I was talking about? Here’s a recpie dating from 1747 that really shows us how spoiled we are by modern kitchen equipment and modern standardized recipe writing:
“To Make a Rich Cake
Take four Pound of Flower well dried and sifted, seven Pound of Currants washed and rubb’d, six Pound of the best fresh Butter, two Pound of Jordan Almonds blanched, and beaten with Orange Flower Water and Sack till they are fine, then take four Pound of Eggs, put half the Whites away, three Pound of double refin’d Sugar beaten and sifted, a quarter of an Ounce of Mace, the same of Cloves and Cinnamon, three large Nutmegs, all beaten fine, a little Ginger, half a Pint of Sack, half a Pint of right French Brandy, Sweetmeats to your liking, they must be Orange, Lemon, and Citron. Work your Butter to a Cream with your Hands before any of your Ingredients are in, then put in your Sugar, mix it well together; let your Eggs be well beat, and strain’d thro’ a Sieve, work in your Almonds first, then put in your Eggs, beat them all together till they look white and thick, then put in your Sack and Brandy and Spices, and shake your Flour in by Degrees, and when your Oven is ready, put in your Currants and Sweetmeats as you put it in your hoop; it will take four Hours baking in a quick Oven, you must keep it beaten with your Hand all the while you are mixing of it, and when your Currants are well wash’d and clean’d, let them be kept before the Fire, so that they may go warm into your Cake. This Quantity will bake best in two Hoops.”
My arms are tired just reading that recipe.
To give an idea of just how much locality affected wedding feasts historically, I’ve got another menu for you. This one isn’t from a single wedding, but is a composite of typical foods of the time and place to give an idea of what someone might have served at a wedding in Indiana in roughly 1836.
Potatoes and Fresh Peas
Pickled Beets and Eggs
Pound Cake w/ Cherry Sauce
Wedding Cake – Stack Cake
Recipes follow on the site.
As you can see, there’s no maple here and no shellfish. Indeed, there’s no fish at all. If there had been, it would most likely have been a freshwater variety caught at the local lake, pond, or stream. The rye bread of the coastal menu is replaced with cornbread. Instead of limes and lemons imported from the West Indies, there are local cherries and the stack cake is stacked with strawberry jam. Both menus, however, include pork since pigs could be raised nearly anywhere in the country.
The other thing both menus have in common is the sense of celebration, the determination to give the best of what’s available to guests in honor of the event. In that way, wedding feasts haven’t changed one bit.