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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Growing Grains and Ingrained Ideas in Colonial New England

Gregorio Coche Mendoza, Corn
Oil on Canvas, 7 x 15 in.
Bloggers' Private Collection
Gift of Homer Stavely Jr. and Mary Mayshark-Stavely


The English settlers arrived in New England in the early seventeenth century possessed of an ancient set of attitudes about which kinds of bread were more and less desirable. The most desirable kind—indeed, the only kind that was really desirable—was wheat bread. But their longing for breads made exclusively with wheat could only be satisfied in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, after the opening of the Erie Canal made wheat shipped from areas to the west affordable. Before that, in the 18th century, New England was a major importer of wheat, bringing it in from Pennsylvania and other Middle Colonies. This trade, however, was never carried on in sufficient volume to make wheat bread a dietary staple on all levels of New England society. With a short growing season, stony soil, labor for clearing acreage in limited supply, and the depredations caused by a fungus which farmers called "the blast," colonial New England was particularly ill-suited for growing wheat.
In Plymouth in the first few decades after settlement, wheat ranked well behind corn in acreage and yield. A typical Plymouth Colony farm produced one hundred bushels of corn for every eighteen bushels of wheat. According to historian Darrett B. Rutman (in Husbandmen of Plymouth) for the 1640s and 1650s, corn yields were more than double wheat's.


A word about terminology: The grain that we called "corn" just now, following modern American usage, wasn't called that by the English settlers of North America. To do so would have been confusing, since at that time "corn" was a synonym for grain in general. There was by then an English word, maize (derived from mahiz, used by the Arawak people of Cuba) for this specific grain. But it was of relatively recent coinage, and not that many people were familiar with it. The settlers instead began calling the new grain they were encountering "Indian corn," associating it with their name (to us a misnomer) for the people they found growing it. This inevitably got shortened to "Indian," which then also appeared as part of the name for foods made with corn, such as "Rye and Indian Bread." The name of this particular food was itself compressed in everyday speech into "Ryaninjun." When we use these words and phrases in this and the following posts focusing on corn and the breads made with it in colonial and nineteenth-century New England, we are striving for historical accuracy, not endorsing the Eurocentric attitudes harbored within them. 


After the first years of settlement and some limited success with wheat, yields in most areas of settlement in the New England colonies actually decreased because of the spread of the blast. Farmers observed it on growing plants. They knew it seemed more prevalent in areas where barberry bushes also grew, so they often removed those bushes. (It wouldn't be until much later that the fungus Puccinia graminis, also known as stem or black rust, would be identified; it would be demonstrated that the fungus thrives when an alternate host is present—and barberry is indeed the most important alternate host. But Puccinia graminis can complete its life cycle either with or without barberry.)
Given the unfavorable soil and climate and the likelihood of crop-damaging disease, in time most colonial Massachusetts farmers chose to grow only small amounts of wheat for their families, or none at all, and concentrated on the less-affected rye crop and the most easily grown cereal crop of all, Indian corn, which offered the best, if least desirable, solution to their need for grains. The Connecticut River Valley, where rich alluvial soil provided some advantages for wheat growing and where the elimination of barberries near farmers' fields was soon implemented, was the only area in New England with significant wheat yields. But throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and indeed all of New England, "the price of wheat typically was 35 to 85 percent higher than that of corn, and sometimes twice as high," historian Karen J. Friedmann notes in "Victualling Colonial Boston."
Thus, Friedmann continues, corn and rye meal, not wheat, became "the staff of life in colonial New England . . ." According to a 1631 declaration of the Massachusetts General Court (legislature), Indian corn was to be treated as legal tender. In 1635 it was explicitly made lawful to pay taxes in the "corne of the country." Maize, and other grains as well, continued to be traded as legal tender in Massachusetts for over a century, with laws passed regulating the exchange as late as 1749.
With wheat supplies in early New England severely limited, most wheat bread was made not at home but by bakers. One indication of how limited supply entailed high price was the system of price controls that was enacted. From 1646 to 1797, the assize of bread was the device used for controlling the sale of bread in Boston and surrounding towns. Friedmann explains that, as in England's assizes, the courts of Boston and nearby towns "standardized the prices at which loaves of bread could be sold and required that the weight of the loaves vary in accordance with variations in the price of wheat, and of wheat only. . . The towns were instructed to appoint clerks of the market, authorized to enter any house where they believed bread was baked for sale and confiscate any bread found too light. Every baker had to mark loaves with identifying initials. To prevent subterfuge, these rules were in 1652 made to apply also to bread used by the bakers' own families. A new Act for the Due Assize of Bread in 1696 tightened the rules of the earlier law and included biscuits 'dried fit for the sea.' . .  . Boston selectmen after 1701 published the average price of wheat about once a month. The bakers were to alter the size of their loaves accordingly. . . . The General Court, lamenting that the law was not being enforced, passed a new version in 1720 with more stringent penalties. . . ."
Friedmann remarks that sometimes Massachusetts bakers had to vary the size of their loaves "by as little as a half an ounce." Even with this slight amount of deviation, "If [a baker's] loaf was too light it was confiscated." These statutes of the assize applied for most of the time only to wheat bread, as that was the most valuable commodity.
Despite these laws regulating the price of wheat bread, the commonest bread in most households in New England remained throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century not bread made of wheat but that made at home of rye and corn or Indian meal—Rye and Indian, which was known colloquially as "ryaninjun," or even "rhineinjun," as the 19th century Rhode Island memoirist Thomas Robinson Hazard has it.
While rye didn't grow as well as corn in early New England, it grew a lot better than wheat. As wheat-growing declined, rye often took its place. In Middlesex County, Massachusetts (near Boston), probate inventories from the third quarter of the 17th century show that the proportion containing wheat dropped from over 50 percent to around 20 percent, while rye rose from 33 percent to almost 40 percent. By the first quarter of the 18th century, rye had become "the chief bread grain of English origin" used in New England. Other European grains, such as field peas, barley, and oats, were distinctly minor crops.
Barley was grown in early Massachusetts mainly for beer, although beer made with barley was soon replaced by the easier-to-grow crop of apples, with which the colonists produced cider. The English prejudice against oats meant they were used mostly for fodder.
So the early New England colonists had an unsatisfyingly small amount of wheat, larger amounts of less desirable European grains, and, in most abundance, a grain that was totally unfamiliar, which they called Indian corn or simply Indian. But the problem with "Indian" went much deeper than the fact that it was new to the colonists. It stemmed from the very fact that they had learned how to grow this grain from a people to whom it was all but sacred, who gave it names that meant "Our Mother," "Our Life," and "She Who Sustains Us." Precisely to the extent Indian corn was central to the culture and way of life of the Native people of the region, the "Indians," to that same extent was the need of the English settlers to grow it and eat it an embarrassment to them, since they considered their own culture and way of life vastly superior to that of the Natives. In their descriptions of their Indian-based daily bread, Ryaninjun, subsequent generations of New Englanders attempted to cope with this gap between agricultural and cultural necessities. These efforts will be the subject of our next post.

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