Your Indus Valley ancestors (3300-1300 B.C.), according to archaeologists, ate a healthy diet that contained more fruits and vegetables than meat. They did keep cows, pigs, sheep, and goats for food, and they grew dates, grapes, and melons. Their field crops included wheat and peas.
How did our diets evolve over the centuries, and what did our more recent ancestors eat?
Medieval England (5th to 15th century)
Most people in medieval times were peasants who grew, raised, or hunted their own food. Though they preferred white bread made from wheat flour, peasants usually baked bread from the rye and barley they were able to grow (wheat needed lots of manure to grow well, so only farmers and lords generally had wheat bread). After a poor harvest, peasants sometimes had to include beans, peas, or acorns in their bread, which they baked in an oven belonging to the lord of the manor that they had to pay to use; they weren’t allowed to have their own ovens.
They typically ate a type of soup or stew called pottage, made from oats and sometimes including beans, peas, and vegetables such as turnips and parsnips. They kept pigs and sheep for meat and used the animals’ blood to make black pudding (a dish made from blood, milk, animal fat, and oatmeal). They occasionally had some fish and cheese, and they drank water from the river (usually dirty) and milk from cows. In the villages, people made and drank ale.
Lords ate much better, of course. Their bread was white, and there were numerous meat and fish dishes at each meal. For the evening meal, they might have pigeon pie. They regularly drank wine or ale.
Ireland before potatoes
The potato is actually Peruvian and didn’t arrive in Ireland until the late 1600s. So what did Irish people eat before that? Pity the lactose-intolerant Irishman, because much of the diet revolved around dairy. They drank milk and buttermilk, ate fresh curds, and mixed whey with water to make a sour drink called “blaand.” They flavored butter with onion and garlic and buried it in bogs for storage (and later, as the taste grew on them, possibly for flavor).
The other primary food of pre-potato Ireland was grain, mostly oats, which were made into oatcakes. Wheat, which wasn’t easy to grow in Ireland, was mostly eaten by the wealthier. People supplemented their grains and milk with occasional meat and fish; grew cabbages, onions, garlic, and parsnips; and ate wild greens.
American Colonial Era (1600s and 1700s)
There were many small farms in the Middle Colonies, which were known as the “breadbasket colonies” because they grew so many crops, including wheat, barley, oats, rye, and corn. They also raised pumpkins, squash, and beans. In the South, crops grew year round, and there were large plantations and farms that exported corn, vegetables, grain, fruit, and livestock to other colonies. The Colonies also had access to fish and seafood, including cod, halibut, mackerel, tuna, trout, salmon, clams, oysters, lobster, and mussels. They hunted game birds as well.
Most English settlers in the Colonies ate three meals a day. Breakfast was bread or cornmeal mush and milk with tea. Dinner, the biggest meal, was generally at midday or mid-afternoon and might include one or two meats, vegetables, and a dessert. Supper in the evening was a smaller meal, more like breakfast: perhaps bread and cheese, mush or hasty pudding, or leftovers from the noon meal. For the gentry, supper was a sociable meal and might include hot food like meat or shellfish, such as oysters, in season.
There was no refrigeration, and hunting was difficult in the harsh winters, so colonists preserved food by salting, smoking, pickling, drying, and making preserves such as jams, marmalades, and syrups. Some of the herbs they used for flavoring included basil, lovage, mint, parley, sage, and dill. They drank coffee, tea, and chocolate drinks.
Frenchman C. F. Volney, speaking of America during the second half of the 18th century, was not impressed with the food. He wrote, “I will venture to say that if a prize were proposed for the scheme of a regimen most calculated to injure the stomach, the teeth, and the health in general, no better could be invented than that of the Americans.”
U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)
Before the Civil War, most people raised vegetable gardens, kept livestock, hunted, and preserved foods. A family in the North might eat a seafood chowder or Boston baked beans cooked with molasses, while a Southern family would enjoy collard greens with cracklin’ bread (corn bread mixed with fried fat).
As the war dragged on, though, food became scarce, especially in the South (see Gone With the Wind). Soldiers on both sides ate canned beans (canned foods were just starting to be available) and bread. Both sides’ armies supplied salt pork and coffee, though after a time, the latter was hard to come by in the South. Civilians, too, had to eat what was available; fresh game could not always be had, and some soldiers, themselves lacking enough food, stole food and livestock from farmhouses they came upon.
Victorian England (1837-1901)
The poorest people ate mostly potatoes, bread, and cheese. Working-class folks might have had meat a couple of times a week, while the middle class ate three good meals a day. Some common foods eaten were eggs, bacon and bread, mutton, pork, potatoes, and rice. They drank milk and ate sugar and jam. This is when the English tradition of afternoon tea started. At the beginning of the Victorian period, people ate what was available locally or pickled and preserved. Later in the era, when railways were available, transport refrigeration made importing meat and fish easier.
The Depression was on, and some people went hungry because they could not afford food. Some had work, but many people lost jobs. People ate what they grew and canned, what they could afford to buy, or what they scavenged. Some ate dandelion greens, wild berries and fruits, squirrels and gophers, and the like. Economical foods introduced during the Depression years include Spam, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Bisquick, and Ritz crackers. One study found that 20 percent of children in New York City were underweight, as were up to 90 percent in the poorest regions, such as Appalachia. Larger cities had soup kitchens where people stood in line for a free meal. This is when the U.S. government started its food stamp program.
World War II — England
Food was rationed, and people were encouraged to “Dig for Victory” and plant vegetable gardens so they would be more food self-sufficient.
In England, ration books allowed you to buy limited amounts of foods such as sugar, bacon, butter, meat, tea, jam, cheese, milk, eggs, and cooking fat. People were permitted one egg every two weeks, though this was not guaranteed, and one pound of meat per week. The cheese ration varied from one ounce per person per week up to eight ounces. As less wheat was imported, more flour was extracted from what grain there was, and the wholemeal loaf of bread that resulted, though different from the white bread people were used to, was actually healthier.
Starting in 1942, the government distributed one packet of dried egg (equivalent to 12 eggs) per person every other month. (The dried eggs made rubbery omelettes.) Bread and potatoes, which were not rationed during the war, went on ration after it, and tea continued to be rationed until 1952. All rationing finally ended in 1954, long after the war was over.
World War II — United States
In the U.S., food was rationed after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Every person in a household received a ration book, including babies and small children, who qualified for canned milk that others did not receive. Sugar was the first food rationed; sales stopped on April 27, 1942, and resumed a week or two later with a limit of a half pound per person per week, half of normal consumption (bakeries got more, and because of that, people starting buying their sweets more than making them). Coffee was limited to one pound every five weeks, which allowed for about one cup of coffee per day instead of three. Rationing ended in 1946.