Each week a nutritionist from the University of Maryland Medical Center provides a guest post to The Baltimore Sun’s health blog Picture of Health (baltimoresun.com/pictureofhealth), which is reprinted here. This week, Christine Dobmeier, RD CSR LDN, weighs in on the 1812 diet.
Baltimore is embarking on the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. With the focus on history with the upcoming events around town, it’s interesting to think about how people in 1812 lived their everyday lives, including what they ate.
Were their diets similar to ours or drastically different?
Eating “locally” is a popular term these days. Many people and restaurants are buying locally grown produce and using local livestock. Consuming such products is beneficial for many reasons, including that it’s good for the local economy, has less environmental impact and is fresh and seasonal.
Back in 1812, Americans didn’t have the resources we do in 2012, and eating locally was a must. Before the railroad system was fully established, people ate the vegetables they grew (corn and beans were two common vegetables), and consumed the livestock (cows, chicken, etc) that they had or hunted animals such as deer, squirrel and rabbits. Cows were also used for milk, cheese and butter. If you didn’t have a farm with animals, you might trade some of your crops for some dairy products or meat from another local farmer. Fish was mainly fresh water, unless you lived by the ocean. It certainly wasn’t like today where you can get fish from all over the world at your local restaurant.
One of the biggest differences between then and now is the methods of preservation. Where we now refrigerate and freeze meat, in the 1800s the main way to preserve meat was to have it smoked, dried as “jerky,” or salted. Preserved meats included bacon, salt pork, smoked ham, dried or corned beef, and smoked, salted or dried fish. Vegetables could be kept in a root cellar or pickled in a solution of brine and vinegar. In 2012 we have access to fruits and vegetables from all over the world, even when they might not be in season here. In 1812, if you lived in Maryland, it would have been rare to enjoy grapefruit or oranges. During the winter months when fresh vegetables weren’t available, they were served pickled. Quite a difference from 2012, when we are able to consume a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables in any season.
Did our ancestors eat healthier than we do? One positive is they did tend to eat fresh, locally grown foods, while in season. Their diets were typically high in sodium, partly due to the preservation methods, as the meat was often smoked or salted, and the vegetables pickled. Also, spices other than salt were quite an expensive luxury item. Their diets also contained a fair amount of saturated fat: plenty of butter, whole milk and cheese were consumed.
In 1812, preparing food took much more time and effort and was a lot of hard work. Between the farming, hunting, preserving, as well as the cooking in heavy iron pans for long periods of time, people burned many calories during their daily activities. Nowadays, meals are much more convenient — not only do we have stoves, but also microwaves. And restaurants line almost every corner. In 2012, a good healthy take away from our 1812 ancestors would be to eat fresh, local foods and less pre-packaged foods. Eat fresh seasonal vegetables rather than canned and snack on nuts and fruits rather than cheese curls and candy.
During the bicentennial celebration, if you see the many tall ships in Baltimore, think of what the Navy sailors ate during the War of 1812. A typical sailor’s diet chart can be found at asailorslifeforme.org.
Beef, pork and cheese were the main protein sources, and suet (beef or mutton fat) and butter were used for fats. They also had plenty of bread, rice and peas. The daily calories from protein and bread alone totals around 2600, and there is an additional 800 calories daily from liquor rations. Extra calories were provided by the other starches and fats.
There are both pros and cons to the 1812 diet, but in 2012 eat what is healthy in this day and age: plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit in a rainbow of colors, whole grains, and lean protein choices.