We all know how the founding Declaration of our nation goes: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Working from those basic principles, penned by Thomas Jefferson, the people of the American colonies started a revolution, and a country of their own.
But if you look a little closer, another truth becomes self-evident: America was founded on food.
First, there's Jefferson, the most food-obsessed of the Founding Fathers. He turned his garden into an international smorgasbord, planting seeds that he picked up on his diplomatic travels all over the world (including some primo rice smuggled out of Italy in his pockets), expanding the colonial palate beyond the standard English mix of crops. He imported wines from France and Italy, claiming the act was revolutionary, in defiance of rum, a product linked to the British West Indies, and the Portuguese and Spanish wines favored back in England. In the 1790s and 1800s, he actually introduced macaroni--and macaroni and cheese--to our new nation, and was a devoted culinary Francophile.
But more than just what he ate, Jefferson saw food as the linchpin of a free society, and the self-sufficient farmer as the ideal citizen, the freest of all men. "Those who labor in the earth," he wrote, "are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." And this wasn't an empty sentiment: we might think of Revolutionary-era America as a place that, by default, was all small farmers and plainspoken folk, but slave-farmed cash crops dominated the South, and large parts of the northern population were busy with trade and minor manufacturing. Jefferson wasn't just praising what he saw around him but making a serious statement, in a similar way to how city kids with liberal arts degrees make a statement by moving to the country and start small farms: America is a place that makes its own food, for itself.
But Jefferson wasn't the only one. As America moved to separate itself from the mother country, even common people began drawing a line between the sophisticated, imported cuisine of Europe and the homespun simplicity of American fare. For many Americans of the period, the Frenchified ways of Jefferson were even too much. Patrick Henry, of "give me liberty or give me death!" fame, criticized Jefferson for liking effete French cooking, which made him "abjure his native victuals." A good example of how Americans liked to celebrate their freedom in the Revolutionary Era came in 1793, when Bostonians threw a party for the city's French residents, to honor the French Revolution. According to James E. McWilliams, in his book, A Revolution in Eating:
The feast began not with the expected pot-au-feu but with Bostonians hanging a "Peace Offering to Liberty and Equality" sign around the neck of an ox, leading it to Liberty Square, slaughtering it, and eating it with sixteen hundred loaves of bread, corn mush, turkey, and two hogsheads of punch--an American affair if ever there was one.
But why define your politics through food? And why bother mocking the author of the Declaration of Independence for his taste for fancy French things? Well, as with many things, the British started it.
The Revolution was, by and large, a direct response to British taxation (without representation), and specifically British taxes on food. First there was the Sugar Tax, an explicit cash grab by the authorities in London to get in on the thriving molasses and rum trade running through the colonies, but the much bigger issue, and the one that annoyed more Americans than almost anything else, were the Quartering Acts. These said that any Americans, anywhere in the colonies, had to house--and feed--any British troops who decided to stop by and stay for a while. And when you grow most of your own food in your backyard, and painstakingly brew your own beer, and salt your own pork, and mash your own cornmeal, and any surplus is the only way you have to make money all year, having a bunch of hungry strangers with guns crash at your place isn't just obnoxious, it's infuriating. Just imagine if a few squad cars of State Troopers made a habit of crashing your weekend cookouts--after a few weeks, even your sleepiest brother-in-law would be taking to the streets.
McWilliams argues in his book that without the
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