Political Gastronomy examines the many meanings of food as a symbol of power in the daily life and the political culture of early America. Struggling to establish status and precedence, English settlers and American Indians alike conveyed authority through shared meals and other significant exchanges of food.
2012 | 240 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History | History
View main book page
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. "Commutative Goodnesse": Food and Leadership
Chapter 2. "Art of Authority": Hunger, Plenty, and the Common Stores
Chapter 3. "By Shewing Power Purchasing Authoritie": Gender, Status, and Food Exchanges
Chapter 4. "Would Rather Want Then Borrow, or Starve Then Not Pay": Refiguring English Dependency
Chapter 5. "A Continuall and Dayly Table for Gentlemen of Fashion": Eating Like a Governor
Chapter 6. "To Manifest the Greater State": English and Indians at Table
Conclusion. "When Flesh Was Food": Reimagining the Early Period after 1660
Hungry, wet, and weary, a small group of English men rowed into the Carolina Sounds in the summer of 1584. They had arrived less than a month earlier, sent to explore the region and make contact with its native population. After a few tentative encounters with Carolina Algonquians, the English party decided to leave the safety of their ships and set out for the village of Roanoke.
As they watched the English approach, Roanoke's Algonquian inhabitants displayed the same mixture of curiosity and apprehension as their approaching guests. Most of the small group standing on shore were women, who had been cooking, tending fires, and minding children until they saw the English approaching. Among them was a woman whose clothing, hair, and bearing distinguished her from the rest. The wife of Granganimeo, a prominent man, and sister-in-law of Wingina, the Carolina Algonquians' overall leader, she had visited the English ships a few days before with her husband and children. In her husband's absence, she arranged a warm welcome for these uninvited but important guests: a fire, a bath, a meal, and a place to sleep.
Interactions like this one were not uncommon in the early period, and it was no accident that food lay at the center of each. Granganimeo's wife believed that a woman of her station was obligated to offer hospitality, and her guests shared these assumptions. This meant that as the English travelers sat and rested, warmed themselves, and ate (gesturing for more helpings of various dishes, smiling and nodding politely to their hostess, and offering comments to each other on the meal), they were also taking part in a form of communication. Everyone present at this meal knew that it was an important occasion and that meanings were being shared along with foods, and everyone conducted him- or herself accordingly. However vast the gulf of culture, religion, history, and technology that separated English from Indians, a table brought them surprisingly close together.
Political Gastronomy explores what food meant—and how food meant—to these men and women and many others like them. Food is as ubiquitous in the written accounts of early America as the labor associated with it was in daily life. When Indians and English produced food, exchanged it, ate it, or described their experiences, they conveyed dense and interlaced messages about status, gender, civility, diplomacy, and authority.
The 1584 Roanoke voyage was intended to find a likely site for an eventual settlement, and in his manuscript account of the voyage Arthur Barlowe claimed success. Reporting to the voyage's backers, who included the influential young courtier Sir Walter Ralegh, Barlowe described islands "so full of grapes, as the very beating, and surge of the Sea overflowed them, of which we founde such plentie, as well there, as in all places else, both on the sande, and on the greene soile on the hils, as in the plaines, as well on every little shrubbe, as also climing towardes the toppes of the high Cedars, that I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde." The forests were, Barlowe went on, "full of Deere, Conies, Hares, and Fowle, even in the middest of Summer, in incredible aboundance." Tangled vines heavy with fruit and forests teeming with game offered a tempting image of opportunity: a fertile landscape not fully exploited by its native population where English travelers and potential settlers might feed themselves with minimal labor.
Barlowe also hoped to make contact with the native population of the Sounds, and on the third day of Barlowe's explorations, a group of three Carolina Algonquians paddled ashore within sight of the English ships. One of this group "came along the shoare side towards us" and "walked up and downe uppon the point of the lande next unto us," which the English understood as an invitation for a small party to row ashore to meet him.
Noting that the man watched the English approach, "never making any shewe of feare, or doubt," Barlowe signaled that although these two groups had never met, they knew about each other, expected to meet, and had prepared accordingly. Even if they had not encountered Indians firsthand, the members of the voyage had read or heard accounts of others' encounters and expected to conduct their own. Some among the native population of the Carolina Sounds had firsthand knowledge of Europeans, having encountered Spanish or French travelers, shipwrecked sailors, or marooned privateers. The rest had learned what they knew (as most Europeans had) through secondhand reports.
Barlowe described the encounter that took place after the English party reached shore in terms readers like Ralegh, and the investors he hoped to attract, would have found very promising: "And after he had spoken of many things not understoode by us, we brought him with his owne good liking, aboord the shippes, and gave him a shirt, a hatte, and some other things, and made him taste of our wine, and our meate, which he liked very well." In the absence of language (which Barlowe acknowledged in an unusually forthright way), the interaction between the English party and this Algonquian man centered on an offer of food, the single most meaningful and mutually understood form of symbolic communication. Just as he did in describing "incredible aboundance," Barlowe intended to convey a specific (though unrelated) meaning to his readers through references to food. For the English to offer this Algonquian man food, and for him readily to accept that offer, was a clear sign of not just a desire for an alliance but the beginning of one.
A further layer or level of meaning in Barlowe's account of this encounter derived from the Indian man's conduct afterward, when "hee fell to fishing, and in lesse then halfe an howre, hee had laden his boate as deepe, as it could swimme." The man then returned to the place where the two groups had first met and "devided his fishe into two partes, pointing one part to the shippe, and the other to the Pinnesse: which after he had (as much as he might,) requited the former benefits receaved, he departed out of our sight." To Barlowe and his readers, this man's actions demonstrated that Indians and English shared an understanding of what had taken place, that the Algonquian man had accepted the meanings Barlowe intended to convey along with wine and food. Natural abundance and a native population peacefully inclined toward the English were important signs for Barlowe's readers. This episode served as further proof of these points and in addition evidence that the Carolina Algonquians understood that their interactions with the English had begun to establish bonds of mutual trust and reciprocity.
Barlowe's party was introduced to an Indian leader only a day after this encounter, and in Barlowe's narrative the relationship between the two meetings was implicit but clear. Barlowe was describing his success in securing an increasingly close and trusting relationship with the native inhabitants of the region. The Carolina Algonquians told the English that Wingina, their leader, had been injured in a battle and could not meet with them. In his place appeared Granganimeo, described as "the Kings brother," who was accompanied by "fortie or fiftie men, very handsome and goodly people, and in their behaviour as mannerly and civill as any of Europe." Presented with "Chamoys, Buffe, and Deere skinnes," all valuable commodities, the English party "shewed [Granganimeo] all our packet of merchandize." Of "all things that he sawe," Barlowe went on, "a bright tinne dish most pleased him, which hee presently tooke up and clapt it before his breast, and after made a hole in the brimme thereof and hung it about his necke." To those of his readers with knowledge of the early travel literature, Barlowe's description followed a pattern already familiar: an exchange of animal skins for metal goods.
Barlowe's diplomatic achievements were not yet finished. "After two or three daies," Granganimeo came "aboord the shippes, and dranke wine, and ate of our meate, and of our bread, and liked exceedingly thereof," as the earlier visitor had. This meeting was followed by an extraordinary visit from Granganimeo, his wife, and their children, all of whom came aboard the English ships. After this unmistakable sign of trust, "[Granganimeo] sent us every day a brase or two of fat Bucks, Conies, Hares, Fish the best of the world. He sent us divers kindes of fruites, Melons, Walnuts, Cucumbers, Gourdes, Pease, and divers rootes, and fruites very excellent good, and of their Countrey corne, which is very white, faire and well tasted."
These occasions serve to punctuate Barlowe's narrative, plotting an increasingly close relationship between English and Indians at Roanoke, and food is the only feature they all share. In one sense, this list of foods repeated earlier themes, namely the region's natural abundance and friendly native population. But this case added additional meanings Barlowe's readers were eager to hear. The arrival of such a broad range of foods "every day" was a clear sign of a strong and ongoing alliance between Indians and English, in which the Algonquians demonstrated their willingness and ability to feed the visitors. Even more, the range of foods offered, reflecting considerable labor by men (fish and game animals) and women (fruits, nuts, and vegetables), suggested a productive and orderly Algonquian society. And by specifying that these foods had been personally sent by Granganimeo, Barlowe described that society as under the control of an effective leader, one with the authority to dispose of the foods his people produced in exchanges.
The peaceful, productive, and orderly society Barlowe encountered in the Carolina Sounds was even more vividly portrayed with reference to the idealized European past. Barlowe wrote that he "found the people most gentle, loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age." This rich cultural reference, familiar to all of Barlowe's readers, was also illustrated with reference to food: "The earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour. The people onely care . . . to feede themselves with such meat as the soile affoordeth." Barlowe's ecstatic portrait of Roanoke's native population concluded with specific praise for their simple and nourishing diet. He wrote that "their meate is very well sodden, and they make broth very sweet, and savorie." Even their cookware and dishes were worthy of Barlowe's praise: "their vessels are earthen pots, very large, white and sweete: their dishes are woodden platters of sweete timber." Food again conveyed the richest symbols for Barlowe's message of peace, simplicity, health, order, and bounty.
The climax of Barlowe's account was his description of the hospitality his party enjoyed at Granganimeo's house, the episode with which we began. Rowing ashore near the village of Roanoke, Barlowe's party met Granganimeo's wife, who "came running out to meete us very cheerefully and friendly." First, she ordered some of her people to carry the English to shore on their backs while others drew the English boat ashore. Then, she and other women "caused us to sitte downe by a great fire, and after tooke off our clothes and washed them, and dried them againe." More extraordinary still, "some of the women pulled off our stockings and washed them" and "some washed our feete in warme water." Meanwhile, Granganimeo's wife "tooke great paines to see all things ordered in the best maner shee could, making great haste to dresse some meate for us to eate."
Barlowe went on to describe the meal the English were offered in Granganimeo's house:
"After we had thus dried our selves, she brought us into the inner roome, where shee set on the boord standing along the house, some wheate like furmentie, sodden Venison, and roasted, fish sodden, boyled, and roasted, Melons rawe, and sodden, rootes of divers kindes, and divers fruites. . . . We were entertained with all love, and kindnes, and with as much bountie, after their manner, as they could possibly devise." Another list of foods, but with new layers of meaning at this point in Barlowe's narrative. This meal, prepared and served by Granganimeo's wife and eaten in his home, was the culmination of Barlowe's narrative of a growing friendship between his party and the Indians of the region. A meal like this one was the clearest way to signal "love, and kindnes" coupled with "bountie," evidence that Barlowe knew his readers would find persuasive.
Barlowe might have told his readers about the Carolina Algonquians' willingness to host a settlement of English men in their territory in a variety of ways, but his layered descriptions of food suggested meanings that could not be otherwise conveyed. These meanings depended on the ways food plotted the progress of his narrative, on the cumulative effect of his descriptions, and on the deep resonances certain images—bountiful hospitality, a golden age of simplicity, health, and abundance—conveyed to English readers. Food, in Barlowe's account as in many others, was everywhere, simultaneously conveying meanings to Indians and English, whether travelers or readers, about ecology, diplomacy, civility, gender, status, and power.
* * *
Political Gastronomy explores how men and women in the English Atlantic world—both Indians and English—conveyed and interpreted the intertwined symbolic meanings of food and how they manipulated those symbols in their struggles for precedence. During the early period of high hopes, false starts, and frail beginnings, nearly all leaders of English voyages and settlements struggled to establish themselves as strong and effective leaders with a legitimate claim to office. Middling men whose social position would not qualify them to hold powerful offices in England, leaders in the English Atlantic world faced a variety of challenges in this effort—from ordinary settlers, from peers and rivals, and from Indians—and responded in very different ways. Food lay at the heart of these challenges and would-be leaders' responses to them.
Two questions must be addressed at the outset. The first is how food can be said to have played any role in politics in the formal sense of courts, legislative assemblies, governors' councils, and the like. Formal institutions like these are a familiar feature of the scholarly literature on early America, but Political Gastronomy focuses on less tangible features of leadership, summed up in the term "authority." One of the early period's most salient features is the dynamism and fluidity of its political culture. Many English leaders found themselves faced with the need to secure legitimacy, and titles, offices, and royal patents alone were not always sufficient. So officeholders turned to more informal means, presenting themselves in public in a way that conformed to the expectations of peers and the commons and describing their actions in a way aimed to appeal to a metropolitan audience. Food was fundamental to this search for legitimacy. This is not to say that courts and legislatures were secondary: food was not the only site or occasion for political contests in the early period, nor was it always the most important site for the negotiation of relationships, whether among the English or between Indians and English. But food was always a site for such interactions, which gives it a unique value for historians.
The second question focuses on "food" itself, a loose term that refers only in part to what one eats. Food is among the most richly symbolic elements of social life, conveying a variety of meanings relating to host and guest, giver and recipient, cook and diner, producer and consumer, and these meanings are linked to the most fundamental of all social relationships. Food had meanings that depended on whether or not it was present; who controlled, prepared, and presented it and under what circumstances; whether it was a plant or an animal, bread or meat. The paths food took from the soil, streams, and forests of England to the tables of the people who lived there delineated the social order itself. Tracing these paths is akin to tracing the circulation of blood in a body politic.
Each of these social practices and relationships contributed meanings for early English travelers and settlers and for the native peoples they encountered in the Americas. In cases like the meal offered to Barlowe's party, basic similarities between English and Native American food customs yielded similar meanings for both groups; in others, widely different cultural associations led to very different meanings. But despite the gulf that separated the two groups in most areas, both English and Indians understood that foods conveyed fundamental messages when they passed from one group to the other or were shared at a meal. In other words, even when they did not grasp the nuances of this symbolic communication, all parties understood that they were communicating and even, in many cases, the basic substance of what they were communicating. When Barlowe offered his Indian visitor food and wine, for example, the man understood the obligation conferred by this gift, reciprocating with fish. When an English party visited her home, Granganimeo's wife honored them with abundance and variety while in equally unmistakable terms conveying her own household's status through the foods she offered.
Its multivalence is one of food's most fascinating qualities, and at the heart of food's many meanings lies a unique combination of dense symbolism with the basic human need for nutrition. These aspects are impossible to separate: the human body's need for calories made food a daily concern in the early period, and its symbolic richness linked these daily occasions to larger social and political meanings. To put it another way, food "had not only more than one meaning but more than one kind of meaning," and caloric and symbolic meanings always overlaid each other in the eyes of contemporaries.
For hungry settlers across the English Atlantic world, ample food in any form meant nothing less than deliverance from hunger and the fear of starvation. The appearance of a supply fleet, for example, was a unique opportunity to display the pageantry of political power, which might include volleys of cannon fire as the ships entered the harbor, an honor guard with antique weapons gleaming, bowed and bared heads on all sides, an oration, a procession, a sermon, a seated figure dressed in rich robes. All of these elements were important to the pageantry of authority, but only food—only the barrels of grain and salted meat that would surely be lifted over the ships' sides and rowed ashore in full view—carried this double meaning.
Similarly, when native leaders appeared at the gates of an English settlement bearing a gift of venison, they intended to convey a dense set of symbolic messages connecting this particular animal to masculine skill in hunting and, by extension, warfare. Control of these animals—the ability to offer them in exchanges—was evidence of effective leadership on both sides. Therefore the act of eating such animals was a symbolic enactment of social relationships; in the English case, it separated the upper and lower reaches of society by virtue of their access to venison. But the significance of this food extended beyond the occasion on which it was exchanged, or served, or even eaten, to the metabolic processes by which it was digested. A diet that regularly featured such foods resulted in real physical differences in nutrition, fertility, longevity, height, and weight.
A natural place to begin peeling back these layers of meaning for the early modern English is where they themselves would have seen the roots of social relationships: daily life and household labor. Most Europeans of the period organized their lives according to the seasonal rhythms of agriculture and spent most of their waking hours producing food in one form or another. The cultural significance of this daily labor and the foods it produced was vast: in many ways the labor itself defined social roles based on age, gender, and social status. Hunting, fishing, gathering, planting, herding, harvesting, storing, preserving, preparing, and serving plants and animals at table—and cleaning up after meals—were each among the most highly gendered of all work, and when early modern English men and women performed this labor, they were also performing social roles. By doing so, they expressed meanings that extended well beyond the human need for sustenance.
Thomas Tusser's Five hundreth points of good husbandry united to as many of good huswiferie, a manual in verse for small landowners and substantial tenant farmers, embodied many of these assumptions in a way that clearly appealed to Tusser's contemporaries: the book went through eighteen editions between 1557 and 1599. Unlike other husbandry manuals, which were written for the gentry, Tusser's work painted an idealized image of an ordinary farm household, and its author instructed, reminded, and chided his readers about the diligence and hard work it would take to conform their own households to that image. To Tusser and his contemporaries, the ideal English household was cooperative yet patriarchal, unequal yet harmonious: a miniature model and the basic unit of society itself. An orderly and productive farm indicated that the most basic social relationships were functioning properly, that diligent labor by men and women in their separate roles had produced a harmonious whole.
On one level, Tusser's work stressed separate roles and distinct forms of labor for men and women, adults and children, servants and masters. Male labor focused on crops and fields, farm animals and tools, and local markets; female labor focused on gardening, dairying, brewing, and baking. This labor was simultaneous and parallel, separated physically into male and female spaces but part of the overall work of providing for the family. As important as gender distinctions were to Tusser, the interdependence of the household's members was even more important. When fattened animals were slaughtered in late fall, for instance, they moved from barn to kitchen through the labor of slaughtering and butchering, primarily work for men, and salting and smoking their flesh, primarily female labor. Similarly, grain, the product of male labor, became the staff of life through the highly gendered labor of baking. Dairy products—cheese, whey, and butter—provided the bulk of protein and fat in the early modern English diet. These foods also combined male responsibilities for husbandry with women's (and children's) responsibility for the twice-daily work of milking and the labor-intensive work of dairying, which required specialized equipment and knowledge. From a perspective like Tusser's, freshly baked bread and sweet butter, or bacon, or beer, encapsulated a properly ordered household, whereas rancid butter, spoiled meat, and moldy bread were not just revolting but evidence of disorder.
A household that was properly "governed," to use a revealing early modern term, was one in which each member played his or her distinct role properly. For Tusser, Christmas was the occasion to display a properly governed household through the fruits of diligent husbandry and housewifery:
Good bread & good drinke, a good fyer in the hall,
brawne pudding & souse & good mustarde withal.
Biefe, mutton, & porke, shred pyes of the best,
pig, veale, goose & capon, & Turkey wel drest:
Chese, apples & nuttes, jollie Caroles to here,
as then, in the cuntrey, is counted good chere.
The Christmas display of abundance embodied Tusser's vision of English society completely. Servants and dependents were invited to share the household's bounty, manifesting the vertical ties that (in this case) bound the lower and middle reaches of the English social hierarchy. Social peers of the host and hostess were not only invited but expected to extend invitations of their own, an ethic of "neighborliness" that bound the members of rural English communities with horizontal social ties. Each of these relationships found its purest expression in shared meals. As Tusser put it,
Good wife, & good children, are worthy to eate,
good servant, good laborer, earneth their meate.
good frend & good neighbour, that fellowly gest:
with hartely welcome, should have of the best.
It required a properly ordered society composed of properly governed households to produce a meal like this, and for Tusser the specific qualities and inequalities of English rural society were publicly displayed and affirmed on such occasions.
Generalizations about Native American food habits are much more difficult, given the geographical and cultural diversity of Native American societies encountered by the English during the early period. Not all groups placed the same importance on agriculture, or even cultivated crops at all. The Iroquoian-speaking Hurons and Iroquois of the eastern Great Lakes and present-day upstate New York, for example, lived in hilltop villages surrounded by fields. These groups produced a surplus of food that was used to sustain these dense settlements, to provision military expeditions, and to trade with other groups. The Algonquian speakers of present-day eastern Québec and the Canadian Maritimes—Montagnais, Micmac, Abnaki, Algonkin, and other groups—lived in close proximity to the Iroquoian speakers but pursued very different subsistence strategies. Instead of agriculture, these groups relied primarily on fishing and hunting, perhaps trading their surplus of game for maize with groups like the Hurons. Farther north, salmon runs provided Arctic peoples with seasonally abundant food, which they supplemented with hunting, gathering, and fishing offshore for the rest of the year. Agriculture, a practical impossibility given the climate, played no part in the diets of these groups.
Still, certain features were broadly shared by those Native American groups encountered by the English in the early period. Most of the Algonquian speakers of the Atlantic coast, from Florida to the Maritimes, had adopted the cultivation of maize in the centuries before contact. As was true for Tusser, the daily labor of producing and preparing food embodied and legitimated Native American gender and status distinctions.
A field planted with maize along with beans and squash is often called a milpa, from this combination's origin in central Mexico. Known elsewhere as the Three Sisters, milpa agriculture slowly spread northward through eastern North America, complementing crops domesticated earlier and seasonal fishing, hunting, and gathering. The year after Arthur Barlowe wrote his descriptions of the Carolina Sounds, Sir Walter Ralegh sent another expedition to the region that included John White, who was instructed to provide visual evidence of the region's landscape and native population. White's watercolors were the basis for copperplate engravings produced by the workshop of Theodor de Bry to accompany the 1590 edition of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia by Thomas Harriot. The village of Secotan, for example, provides a snapshot of this process. Maize grows alongside tobacco, sunflowers, and pumpkins, three crops independently domesticated earlier in the Southeast. This image of an orderly and productive farming village would have resonated with English readers who, whether or not they had also read Thomas Tusser, viewed quite similar images as reflections of their own idealized social hierarchy.
There were important differences between the two, deriving from the fact that Algonquians did not live in settled agricultural communities like Secotan for the entire year. Instead, most relied for subsistence on seasonal migrations to exploit sources of food when and where they were most abundant. In early spring, Algonquians gathered in villages like Secotan near the coast or the banks of inland rivers to exploit the abundant spawning runs of smelt, alewives, salmon, and sturgeon and migrations of ducks and geese northward along the Atlantic seaboard. This was a period of intense activity and abundant food, and labor was divided according to gender in terms that Thomas Tusser would have recognized. Men for the most part did the work of hunting and fishing, and women dressed the game, cleaned the fish, preserved some of it, and prepared the rest.
During the months of April and May, the first corn crop was planted. Here too, labor was highly gendered. Men helped clear new fields, which was done by girdling trees and leaving them standing. When the trees died, sunlight could reach the soil between their trunks. Beyond this, agriculture was work for women in Algonquian society, quite the opposite of the English experience. Women planted their crops in hills using simple tools like pointed sticks and hoes, and women weeded the cornfields in the spring. After this, fields needed little attention.
Once the crops were in, women in inland Algonquian groups foraged for wild plants, berries, and (in the fall) nuts. Beginning in the late summer, the residents of Secotan harvested the first of three crops of maize. Groups farther north could expect fewer harvests, but their first corn also ripened in late summer. For coastal groups, men fished offshore in canoes and speared fish closer to land. Men also built and tended fish weirs, while women gathered shellfish in tidal flats and dried the catch in smoke to preserve it. Late summer and early fall was another busy season. The waterfowl migrations were reversed, which offered animal protein in brief abundance, and crops were harvested and stored, usually in covered pits. Beginning in October, villages like Secotan dispersed, moving inland and dividing into smaller groups.
Agricultural labor and the crops it produced were identified with women everywhere in Algonquian society, and the foods produced in late fall and winter—mostly by hunting—were similarly identified with men. Strengthening this association, fall and winter were not only the season for hunting but also for war. By the end of winter, grain stores had been depleted, and the game animals that provided a crucial supplement were as lean as the men who hunted them. As spawning fish returned to the rivers and the first ducks and geese appeared overhead, Algonquian villages again appeared in the same areas, often on the same sites, as the previous year, and the seasonal round repeated.
The correspondences Barlowe described between English and Algonquian assumptions, and which appeared in visual form in the de Bry engravings, had their roots in the similar labor required to produce food no matter where it grew, ran, swam, or flew. But the similarities went further and deeper. Secotan's inhabitants and Tusser's readers subsisted on more or less the same daily meal: a one-pot stew of grain, herbs, vegetables, and (when available) meat or fish. Two more engravings that accompanied the 1590 edition of Harriot highlight these similarities. The first shows a stew of maize, fish, and other ingredients simmering in a thin-walled clay pot. Underscoring the similarities to European pottages, Harriot's text compared the dish to a "gallimaufrye, which the Spaniarde call, olla podrida." Another engraving shows a man and woman eating together from a dish of cooked maize, suggesting that the foods Algonquian men and women provided separately were shared at family meals that differed only in minor points from those described by Tusser.
Formal meals were far more likely than daily meals like these to feature the choicest foods and rarest ingredients and to display social distinctions of status and gender. As evidenced by the feast offered to Barlowe by Granganimeo's wife and the feast offered by Tusser's fictional household to its Christmas guests, this was also true of both Indians and English. Nearly all English travelers found that food played an important role in early encounters and dominated many of them. Because of the inescapable connections between hospitality and the social standing of host and guest, such occasions were potentially fraught. Even in England, hosts were sensitive to slights, signals that the relative social positions of host and guest were perceived differently by both sides, and this was only more true in the Americas. English and Indian leaders closely observed each other's manners and customs, searching for meanings in a host's placement of his guests, his offer or withholding of particular foods, whether he washed his hands (and if so, whether he included others in this ritual), and a number of other possibly meaningful actions and objects. Although the nuances of this symbolic language could be lost in translation (and often were), Barlowe's account again shows that both sides clearly understood the seriousness of the occasion and, to varying degrees, grasped the meanings their counterparts sought to convey.
Recognizing the frailty of their initial efforts at settlement, that their claims could not proceed as if Indians were not there, most English leaders were careful to conform their behavior to native expectations as much as possible. Indians were neither a screen onto which English leaders might project their vision of authority and dominance nor a passive audience for English claims of authority. To describe early encounters in such a way suggests that they were conducted on English terms, when in fact English officials often had to allow for the presence of powerful, outspoken native leaders who sought to make similar claims in a similar way.
Therefore, even on the frequent occasions when the parties encountering each other on the beaches of the Americas had never experienced such an encounter, both sides proceeded from the assumption that, in certain broad areas, their cultural assumptions overlapped. This perception of mutual understanding, however limited in actual fact, explains how it is that English travelers like Barlowe without any personal experience with Indians or the Americas could approach interactions surrounding food with the assumption that they understood and were understood. Early encounters were taut, contested negotiations, dynamic occasions limited by language but facilitated by symbolic expressions. Food was at the center of these occasions, a welcome gift, a common gesture, and a readily understood medium through which the two sides might convey a range of meanings.
Food in these many forms and meanings is the subject of the chapters that follow, a perspective that brings into focus features of the early period otherwise invisible, misunderstood, or overlooked. First, when English elites struggled with each other for precedence or negotiated with Indian leaders, they could not always rely on formal institutions, offices, and titles as props to their claims of legitimacy. Instead, they often made use of public occasions and appealed to ordinary men and women to support these claims, which shifts our understanding of the period's political culture onto new ground. Political Gastronomy argues that food lay at the heart of these public assertions of legitimacy in the early period.
A second and related point is that food always remained more than the sum of its symbolic resonances, however rich. The chief reason food played such a vital role in public assertions of legitimacy was that it combined biological necessity with symbolism. In other words, food was never just a symbol to be employed as a means of staking a claim to authority, whether by leaders in the English Atlantic world or writers who described their actions. Unlike other symbols of power, food had to be physically present—and ultimately consumed—in order to convey its full meanings, and when it was not, other symbolic assertions of legitimacy rang hollow. Further, because it is a daily necessity, food and the occasions associated with it—distributing rations, for example—could not be avoided and their meanings could not be downplayed, even when those meanings undermined a leader's efforts to assert his legitimacy. In this way, food's inescapable materiality provides a sure route to correcting an overemphasis on textual or symbolic claims to authority.
The daily life of the early English settlements, especially those aspects of daily life that surrounded food, were dominated by Indians, a third feature that emerges clearly from this perspective. Indians were not important only when they negotiated formal treaties, entered churches, or appeared in combat. Their "existential centrality" to early settlers is more easily claimed than shown, but focusing on food makes this fact abundantly clear.
Fourth, English understandings of food were broadly shared across the Atlantic scope of settlement. Not only did the English travel, trade, chart, fight, proselytize, and attempt settlements from Guiana to the Arctic, these efforts were all part of a coherent whole. In addition to bringing together regions more usually described as distinct, this approach incorporates the sixteenth-century efforts to explore and settle the northernmost parts of North America along with the more familiar seventeenth-century settlements. These early efforts drew massive investment, generated enormous interest, and left behind volumes of manuscript and printed sources that later travelers drew on (and sometimes carried with them).
This approach is not without its limitations. Stressing the similar assumptions, strategies, and responses that marked English projects and the texts that described them unavoidably flattens the diversity of Native American cultures encountered by the English during the period in question. Similarly, this approach flattens both the regional diversity that made English travels and settlements in Newfoundland and Bermuda, to take two examples, so different and the many important changes that took place between 1570 and 1650. To embrace such a broad range of places, peoples, and events requires such compromises (and others), and to name them is not to wholly excuse their absence. But this book's purpose lies in exploring and explaining a feature of the early period whose importance has not yet been acknowledged.
Beginning with the broadest assumptions with which English travelers approached these encounters, Political Gastronomy progressively narrows its focus, chapter by chapter, in order to uncover the meanings passing back and forth at meals like the one Barlowe shared with his Algonquian hostess. English assumptions about food and leadership informed their choices of governors, admirals, and other officials for early voyages and determined how they equipped those voyages. Once they reached the Americas, these assumptions informed the ways English leaders conducted themselves in exchanges like those Barlowe described and how they interpreted Indians' conduct. When describing these occasions, English writers like Barlowe tried to shape their readers' perceptions with specific rhetorical strategies, and English elites often made use of similar strategies in their struggles with each other for primacy. Food lay at the heart of all these assumptions, encounters, strategies, and texts. The culmination of Political Gastronomy, the most symbolically rich of all stages, were formal meals like the one Barlowe described.
In one sense, this is a story limited to the early period of settlement, when the threat of hunger and the inability to impose English claims to authority on native groups necessitated negotiation. But by suggesting a richer understanding of the political culture of these years, Political Gastronomy contributes to recent scholarship that argues against a narrative of futility and dysfunction for the early period, replacing that familiar story with one of experimentation, a process of trial and error that eventually resulted in a durable model for English settlement. By suggesting changes to the narrative of English origins, Political Gastronomy joins with other scholarship to reassert the continuities linking the early period to later events. What is more, the political culture of the early period did not dissolve after 1650, or 1700, and neither did food's importance. Although some of its expressions changed, food remained a reservoir of rich meanings connected to gender, social inequality, and political leadership.
In these ways, food offers historians a critical standpoint that sidesteps the question of whether England's settlements in the Atlantic world were dysfunctional in order to reveal what contemporaries envisioned as an appropriate social order, how that order should be manifest in everyday life, and how to respond when experiences diverged from the normative vision. This is not to say that food had only one meaning shared by the many parties involved, but because nearly every early settlement had problems supplying itself at the outset, food was a central concern everywhere. Everyone knew that hunger raised political questions as well as practical ones, and that these questions would play out in daily negotiations taking place across the English Atlantic world.