A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Early Cincinnati cuisine — cooking over a hearth, game, plentiful corn, healthy fruit

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

The harvest time for gardeners and farmers alike has passed, and we’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving feasts.

What did the first settlers of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky typically eat? The harvest was a time of great importance and great celebration out here on the frontier. It could also be a time of great trepidation as there were dangers associated with ensuring a full larder for the winter ahead.

We’ve come a long way from the first winter of the Columbia settlement where they spent the winter living off Beargrass roots pounded into a rudimentary flour for bread. But when a closer look is taken, we really haven’t really gone too far from our Cincinnati forefathers regarding foodways. The staples of our diet are eerily like what John Cleves may have enjoyed.

The same vegetables planted in the soil in the spring of 1789 can be found in some shape or form in today’s kitchen garden. Corn is a vegetable that sees heavy use among the populace today. The only difference is in its priority in use. Today, corn is just another vegetable purchased at the grocery as a side. It also has widespread use for snack food—nachos anyone? Corn was not a luxury to the early settlers, it was life.

During the first years of settlement, corn was the only food source grown in quantity in Cincinnati. With supplies coming slowly down the river from the East, Self-reliance was tantamount. The area of Cincinnati known today as “Turkey Bottoms” had very fertile soil, thanks to the regular flooding it received from the Ohio River. Native Americans had cultivated that area far prior to settlement. The first Europeans here did the same. They planted corn there in 1789. That 600 acres of land produced enough corn to provide for not only the Columbia settlement but also for Cincinnati.

Kitchen gardens were a must for the early residents. The Kemper Family of Walnut Hills had a kitchen garden roughly the size of a football field, plus several fruit trees.

It wasn’t until 1791 that Fort Washington blacksmith, John Riddle, planted the first field of wheat. This was a very dangerous task. Riddle and others working land on what is now the near westside came under attack from Native American warriors. One settler was killed as they raced to escape to the protection of the fort.

Reverend James Kemper arrived with his family later in 1791 and detailed in his unpublished autobiography that the only available flour was sour flour. No regular flour or cornmeal was to be had in the settlement. It was still expensive, $8 a barrel. He lamented that “…even at that price, the family was required to sift through it for worms…”

Despite the early privations regarding vegetables and grains, wild game was plentiful. The area discussed above received its name “Turkey Bottoms” for good reason. Wild turkeys were in abundance in that area. Deer, rabbit, even some buffalo were available for hunting. Aside from providing protein, many of these game animals provided materials for secondary use, like hides that could be sold or made into needed clothing. Black bears were once common in the area. Not only were they a food source, their hide could be used or sold, and grease from bears was used for numerous tasks such as cleaning the barrel of a flintlock firearm and in cooking.

While all the above must seem dire and hardscrabble, dinner fare in the beginning here could be quite wonderful. Many settlers brought hogs, chickens, and cattle. Therefore, domestic meat was available. And as conflict with the Indians was winding down, settlers felt safer to venture farther from fortified settlements. More grist mills sprang up along streams, allowing for more production of ground corn and flour. River deliveries of supplies for people other than the military garrison increased. Crops, including wheat, were cultivated more often by individual families, yields increased, and a time of plenty was upon them.

Wild game was still table fare for most, augmented by home-grown vegetables and wild fruit such as blackberries, apples, and pawpaws. This is a well-rounded diet by any standards, even more so if you understand that all their foodways were essentially organic.

Typical dinner fare at this time for a settler would consist of venison as a main entrée. Most likely the choicest cuts would have been used, the back straps or the roast. Seasoning would have been simply salt and pepper, perhaps some nutmeg. The meat would have been cooked over the fire either using a spit in a reflector oven or hung over the fire with cordage. For sides, vegetables from the kitchen garden such as beans, corn, asparagus, or potatoes would have fit nicely. Often the corn and beans might have been mixed, “Indian style” for succotash. Sometimes wild onions or mushrooms might have augmented their choices. Again, these would have been prepared over the fire in a pot, or if mushrooms, a frying pan. Biscuits, cornbread or simple bread and butter would have complemented the meal. Maybe for dessert, there would be a nice Indian pudding made of cornmeal sweetened with molasses and flavored with ginger and nutmeg. All would be washed down with water or apple cider, the two most common beverages on the frontier other than corn whiskey.

This same dinner menu doesn’t seem far-fetched” even in today’s cuisine. What most will find is that the foodstuffs are much the same today as 230 years ago. Many foods we enjoy today can be dated to our forefathers. Do you enjoy onion rings? Recipes for them date back to 1801. Doughnuts appear in American cookbooks in 1805. Macaroni and cheese date back even further, to 1784. Recipes even exist for breaded fried chicken in 1736. Some of our old favorites are really old.

What has changed is our palates. The herbs, spices, condiments used now have changed drastically the past two centuries. When was the last time you had a dinner that was heavily seasoned with mace, nutmeg, or mushroom ketchup? Due to scarcity and the lack of cultural connections through food, seasonings and condiments were limited when compared to today. Nutmeg is thought to have been as much a status symbol as a seasoning for food.

Sugar use today is much different from what our pioneer forefathers enjoyed. Sugar came in small cone-shaped cakes, often wrapped in blue paper. During George Washington’s presidency, the average American consumed around six pounds of sugar a year. In America today, we consume around 130 pounds in a year. While sugar was popular in the late 1700s, the consumption was nowhere near modern consumption. This indicates a shift in eating habits and in taste preferences. That’s not to say seasoning and spices and condiments that are not sweet have disappeared completely. Malt vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lemon zest, even mushroom ketchup, still find their ways into or onto our food.

If you would like to sample food as prepared in the late 1700s to early 1800s, check out Heritage Village Museum and Educational Center’s “Hearth Cooked Dinners.” They are prepared in our 1804 stone kitchen. Old recipes are brought back to life for foodies.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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