What does the changing taste of “American” palettes have to say about greater social, economic, and political trends during the mid to late 18th century? By studying cookbooks, travel narratives, and diaries, it can be concluded that taste and food consumption served as an intense field of political discourse. Fueled by what historian T.H. Breen calls a consumer revolution, the oppositional forces of Anglicization and creolization worked to define colonists by the cultural items they purchased and intimately interacted with on a daily basis. I believe that there was a unifying and anglicizing trend from the middle of the century on, which mitigated regional differences and ethnic diversity in an effort to create an identity of “British American.” By approaching cookbooks as prescriptive literature, we can discover the recommended social norm—an adaptive yet distinctly English table, with as much (if not more) emphasis on items from throughout the British Empire as on native American ingredients. Taste itself became an embodiment of identity during this period, with food acting as much a consumer item as the openly controversial glass or paper. What you served on your table and what you enjoyed eating was a statement of identity as well as a politicized act. Historian James McWilliams argues that American cuisine changed following independence, rejecting British influence and becoming the plain fare that seems so indicative of the 19th century. Was this a change in the American palette, a transition in taste, or a continued political statement learned during the American War of Independence?
The first published cookbook composed by an American author was not released until 1796, a considerable period after America declared herself politically independent. Prior to this point, households relied on British cookbooks that were either imported or reprinted in the American colonies, or on vernacular cooking habits passed down through families and communities. Comparing published cookbooks from this period with surviving family recipe books demonstrates that, for families of a certain economic standing, there was a marked influence from these British cookbooks. Travel accounts, and personal diaries offer a counterpoint to these suggested norms, giving insights into what quotidian consumption actually was. Studying these resources from 1740 until 1840 provides a lively discussion of what it meant to become American, both as a subject of the British crown and under the new Republic, and allows us to consider food as commodity as well as taste as an indicator of political and social identity.