Ever wonder what New Yorkers actually ate in the nineteenth century? Chef Tom Kearney of The Farm on Adderley in Ditmas Park is hosting a ‘Pre-Industrial Dinner’ next week with historical gastronomist Sarah Lohman to shed some light on pre-industrial food, and on how Brooklyn fit into the larger network of farms and food distribution in the 1800s.
We spoke with Sarah and Tom to learn more about the nineteenth century food scene in New York. If you imagine romantic, soft-focus cooking based solely on fresh, local, seasonal foods, grown on nearby farms, you might be disappointed. Things weren’t quite as idyllic as you might imagine.
So Sarah, what was it like in Brooklyn and New York in the mid-nineteenth century?
Let’s start with Manhattan. In the 1850’s the city didn’t extend above 34th Street. The Herald Square area was considered to be way out in the countryside – it was populated by the rich merchant class living on country estates. Central Park was being planned but hadn’t been developed yet.
The boroughs were not unified yet either. There were separate towns scattered across Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. Brooklyn for the most part was still very rural.
Much of Brooklyn was owned by a few of the old New York families like the Wykoffs and the Lefferts – some of the first Dutch families to settle the area when it was New Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Most of the population centers in Brooklyn were along the East River. There was a lot of commerce along the river, and a lot of trade and goods moving back and forth to and from Manhattan. There were very busy ferry routes operating up and down the waterfront.
Actually, Delmonico’s, the ever-famous, hugely influential restaurant that opened in Manhattan in 1837, had a farm in Brooklyn that supplied their kitchen. So Brooklyn was very agricultural. There were towns and little cities, but most of it was wide tracts of land owned by a few wealthy families.
In Brooklyn, the area of Flatbush and Ditmas Park, where The Farm on Adderley is now, was rural until 1887. It was owned by the Lefferts family. There’s a great quote on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s website regarding their decision to sell the land. They decided to auction off parcels of the land for residential development. At the auction, the auctioneer was quoted as saying, “The absurdity of devoting land so desirable, central, and valuable to raising corn and potatoes has finally induced the owner to part with the lot.”
And that was the beginning of the development of the Brooklyn you see today in those areas.
So what were New Yorkers eating in the mid-19th century?
New York has been cosmopolitan for a very long time. Even in the middle of the 19th century we had an incredible diversity of food.
The Erie Canal was opened in the 1820s. That allowed us to start shipping a lot of food in from the interior of the country, and we shipped a lot of goods back. We started importing pineapple from Florida and the Bahamas at that time. We’ve always had an obsession with importing food and moving it around the country.
Even at that time we were a huge country with vast resources, and a lot of those resources went into the production and distribution of food. We used ice to refrigerate railroad cars and ships’ holds and we were bringing game, birds, fish and produce from the west coast, the Midwest and the South into New York in the mid-19th century.
One thing many people don’t realize is that they really did have refrigeration at that time. Ice was harvested anywhere it could be found, and was used to preserve food throughout the year. We had access to ice right here. They’d cut block of ice off the rivers when they froze in winter and store them in icehouses throughout the year. The ice harvested in winter would last all the way through summer until the next winter. And that was part of everyday life. Harvesting and storing ice to preserve food was just something everyone did at that time, in both urban and rural settings.
So it was possible to bring food in from pretty far away. A lot of people ask about that – they say, “They must have eaten better in the 19th century. They must have eaten more local food.” Yes. They did, but they also had the same desire for imported foods as we do today – lemons were everywhere in the 19th century, and they’re certainly not grown locally.
The food was more seasonal than it is now, but they were importing food from the south, so they had southern watermelons in the markets in April, and apples as early as July. The seasonal boundaries for food were beginning to be blurred even back then.
We weren’t just importing food from around the country. The ports in New York and Brooklyn were connected to the spice trade. We were bringing in tons of spices from China, India, and the Spice Islands.
We were really interconnected within the country and with much of the world, and New York was a center of it all. We were just as cosmopolitan a hundred and fifty years ago as we are today.
But not all the food came from far away. A lot of vegetables came in from New Jersey. Farmers would ferry their produce across the Hudson River and would sell their goods right off the boats to individuals or to middlemen who would take the produce to market to sell it.
We had a vast market system by the 1860s in New York. The head of New York’s markets at the time wrote a book called The Market Assistant. It catalogued every item of food sold in the markets with anecdotal information about them. You could find bear meat, moose meat…it was shockingly diverse.
There were several markets throughout the city. There was a big one where Tribeca is now. There was a ferry that operated between New Jersey and that part of Manhattan. Farmers from New Jersey loaded their horses and wagons onto the ferry and came to the market in Manhattan to sell. The Tribeca market was in some ways like the Union Square Greenmarket is today, but it was probably a hundred times larger. They were supplying individuals and restaurants in the same way that the Greenmarkets do today.
There was another very large market where Cooper Union is today. At that market you could get prepared food – there were oyster bars, little places to buy coffee and pie. Later in the century, actual restaurants sprung up around that market. So it’s very reflective of the markets we’re in the process of reviving in New York today. You could go as an individual, a restaurant, a boarding house cook. If you were living in New York that’s where you’d source a lot of food.
That was also the time when we saw the rise of the pushcart peddlers. Pushcart peddlers were sole proprietors who would go to the market to buy wholesale, and then sell that produce from their carts in other locations.
There were general stores throughout the city where New Yorkers could buy a variety of dry goods, and there were the markets.
What about the cuisine? What were people cooking and eating?
Well, the founding stock in New York were Dutch. They only ran the city for about forty years, but their influence was profound. Throughout the nineteenth century you see remnants of Dutch cooking. They were big bakers, so lots of things like waffles, pancakes, crullers and cookies were legacies of the Dutch.
After that, the Scotch-Irish and the English started coming in large numbers, bringing things like stewed meats, baked beans, and those sorts of things became the basis of American cuisine.
The next big influence on the cuisine in New York came from the Germans. There was a huge German population in New York by the 1850s. Germany wasn’t unified until the 1870s, and there was a lot of civil unrest there in the years before unification, so Germans were immigrating to New York in vast numbers. By the 1860s we had such a large German population that New York had the third-largest German-speaking population on the planet.
The Germans had a huge influence on the food here, and that influence isn’t really recognized today. Many of our iconic foods are German in origin – hot dogs, hamburgers, pretzels, lager beer, sausages and pickled foods. Those things were all clearly tied to German cuisine until World War 1 and 2, when that connection to German heritage and cuisine was kind of erased.
What about restaurants? Were they influential at the time?
Absolutely. Delmonico’s opened in the 1830s, and by the 1860s they were really coming into their prime – serving French food and serving it a la carte. A la carte dining was a new thing. At most taverns or restaurants of the time there was a daily menu and a flat fee. You could eat or not. At Delmonico’s you could spend as much or as little as you wanted and you could pick whatever you wanted from the menu.
Were people talking about Delmonico’s on the streets? Did it impact home cooking?
It did. I have a hand written cookbook that was written in Akron, Ohio in the 1880s. One of the first recipes in the book is for something called Delmonico’s Cakes. So you had a housewife in Akron, Ohio in the 1880s who had copied down a recipe that allegedly came from the Delmonico’s kitchen in New York. So it was incredibly influential, particularly after the 1860s, when the chef Charles Ranhofer came into the kitchen. He’s the chef who really made Delmonico’s into the most important New York restaurant of the 19th century.
So there were celebrity chefs back then too?
Yes. Absolutely. There were both celebrity chefs and celebrity bartenders who were very well known in New York and beyond.
I would not have guessed that we had a pretty robust global food distribution system, let alone celebrity chefs in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s pretty fascinating.
It is. Our relationship to food that was really beginning to change in the mid-19th century. Before that time, most people in most of the country were living on farms and producing their own food, and eating that food or trading or selling their excess to get the rest of what they needed. For a couple thousand years, that had been the main way of dealing with food.
Around that time we started to industrialize. For the first time people were moving into cities and staying there because there were jobs there that could sustain them. If you’re living in a city, you don’t have space to produce your own food. So now you were suddenly entirely dependent on somebody else to produce your food.
It was really a tipping point which sent us hurtling into the modern era, with all of its benefits and luxuries, and all of its problems. While New Yorkers of the time could get all kinds of food from far away, food safety and purity became an issue for the first time.
For example, in Brooklyn at that time there was a big problem with something called ‘swill milk.’ The population in the city was booming and there was a huge demand for milk. In order to meet the demand, they started building urban feed lots for milking cows. And the cows started getting sick. Some blamed it on their diet – they were fed spent grain mash from nearby breweries. Others blamed it on living conditions – the cows were crowded into small, dirty lots. The milk from the sick cows was spoiled, but it was still sold, and as a result there was a spike in infant mortality in some of the most densely populated neighborhoods because they were being sold bad food.
This was something totally new to the society at that time. It became a modern problem. All of the problems that we spend so much time thinking about today when it comes to food can seem like 21st century problems, but they really began in the nineteenth century.
[Following our conversation with Sarah, we chatted with Chef Tom Kearney of Farm on the Adderley about his plans for the dinner.]
So Tom, has anything surprised you as you’ve researched food in New York in the mid-nineteenth century for the event?
A lot of things have. I didn’t realize how much food processing was happening at the time. There was a lot of canning going on, and a lot of food was being shipped all over the country. I assumed we were getting all our grain locally back then, but by the middle of the nineteenth century most of it was coming from the Midwest.
And the ice thing really surprised me. I didn’t realize how much ice there was available. They were bringing tons of ice to Florida to preserve and ship food. They were even shipping ice to China. When Thoreau was writing Walden, he wrote that they harvested 10,000 pounds of ice one year and couldn’t sell it, so it sat on a hill for two years without melting.
Another surprise was how big the menus were in restaurants at the time. At Delmonico’s they had 371 menu items available. That’s crazy!
And I was surprised to find out how many problems there were with food contamination and safety. There were problems with milk, problems with people selling food contaminated with things like formaldehyde – people were doing all kinds of questionable things with food to get one over on people and make some money.
We tend to think things started to go in the wrong direction with food fifty years ago, but it actually started a hundred and fifty years ago.
So how are you planning on tackling the meal?
When you do a dinner like this, some people assume you’re going to try to faithfully duplicate dishes from a specific time. We’re not exactly taking that approach – we’re going to be doing food that’s more inspired by food preparation techniques that were popular at the time, like curing meats, salt curing fish, corning meats, combining meats and that sort of thing. Soups were a big thing. One-pot dishes were a big thing. Pies were big. Stews and braised meats were common.
Whole animal butchering was obviously done then, and we do that here, so we’re already working with things like beef hearts and tongue and oxtail. We make our own hams and bacons and smoked meats, so we’ll involve those sorts of things in the meal.
What we want to do is draw a connection to the relative simplicity and humbleness of the cooking, to gain some historical perspective on the connection to farms, which was a lot closer then although things were changing, and to look a little bit at the differences between where we are today and where we were then. We’d like to put those sorts of foods in a historical context and that’s why we’re so excited to have Sarah coming in.
It’s not about scrutinizing where we are today or glorifying or romanticizing the way things were in the past. It’ll just be an interesting juxtaposition. I know there could be a lot of indignation caused by a slow food restaurant wanting to do a historical dinner, but it’s really just driven by curiosity.
If you’d like to take a deep dive into ‘The Market Assistant,’ the 1866 publication by Thomas F. DeVoe, which chronicles every variety and cut of meat, fish, poultry, and every fruit, nut, vegetable, and other product available at the markets of New York City in the mid-19th century over 450 pages full of fascinating facts, you can find the full book online here.