Discovering America's Culinary Roots: How Food and Spirits Shaped Our Nation

Was America a country founded on food and spirits?

An American Flag flying in the wind at sunset in Lake Clear, NY.

Editor's note

During our History of Food dinner events on Thursday nights, one of our favorite questions is, “What country is famous for its cuisine?” The most common responses are countries such as France, Italy, India, or Japan. Rarely is the United States considered. This might be because American cuisine is incredibly diverse, varying significantly across regions and influenced by numerous cultures and peoples. Even the Native Americans had regional culinary differences shaped by their territories' distinct climates and geographies. Nevertheless, food and related commodities have been crucial in forming the nation. 

When Columbus set out on his voyage to the New World, he sought to discover a sea route to Asia for its spices. While he didn't find spices in the Americas, he did discover indigenous crops like maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, which were then introduced back to the Old World. As European settlements began in the New World, settlers brought over their crops, enriching the local food landscape.

The War On Food

Another way food influenced the United States was the “war” on food and spirits—in this case, taxes. These included taxes on food and spirits, such as the 1733 Molasses Act and the Sugar Act of 1764 and 1765. These were followed by more unpopular Acts, such as the Tea Act of 1773, which resulted in the Boston Tea Party the same year and eventually the Declaration of Independence. 

Alliances Built On Food

Food was also crucial for building relationships with the French, which would be vital in the Revolutionary War. When colonists did not want to pay the tariff on British molasses, they bootlegged French varieties. Seeking to avoid these taxes and the ability to grow grains as the early colonies expanded away from the Atlantic coast encouraged the pursuit of different crops such as corn, wheat, and other grain products. It was only a short time before they began distilling these grain products, helped by the fact there was a core of colonists from Scotland and Ireland.

Colonial Spirits

Shortly after the Revolution, there were over 5000 stills in Western Pennsylvania alone as whiskey threw rum on the back shelf. Even George Washington had a whiskey distillery. You history buffs may remember that significant animosity existed between the English and the French at that time. The purchase of French commodities helped pave the way for further collaborations.

The ability to continue obtaining molasses made rum an early colonial spirit, along with wine and beer. Thomas Jefferson made wine, gaining the affinity as the ambassador to France, who would be instrumental in obtaining military assistance to fight the British Empire. 

This interest in avoiding taxes and issues with transporting imported food and beverages as populations grew away from the Atlantic coast spurred other innovations. In fact, before the heyday of making our rum and whiskey, there was Applejack.

Applejack was the first US-distilled spirit in the colonies. It is a distillate of hard Apple cider, making it officially a brandy, but it tastes more like an apple whiskey, and that’s essentially how it was used back then.

With these distinct ingredients and raw materials, food and spirits culture began, and a unique country was born along the way.

Celebrating Revolutionary Roots

As we celebrate this unique food and spirit history with our July 4th weekend “Taste, Sip and Ride” Tavern Life of the Revolution with period foods and drinks and stagecoach rides, here is a 1700s recipe to try!

18th Century Pound Cake

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Prep Time
30 Minutes
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Cook Time
15 Minutes
Fork and Knife
12 People


  • 2 Sticks Butter (1/2 Pound)
  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • 2 Cups Flour (3+ if you don't have small tins and want to bake them "cookie" style)
  • 1/3 Cup (2 ounces) Rosewater
  • 4 Eggs
  • 1 Teaspoon Cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon Nutmeg


  1. Preheat oven to 350 °F. 
  2. Cream the butter, add sugar, rosewater, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and mix well. 
  3. Crack the eggs in a separate bowl and whisk for 10-15 minutes by hand. Add eggs to the butter mixture and mix until well combined. Slowly mix in the flour.
  4. If using small tins, grease the tins and fill them with batter.
  5. If using cookie cutters, add enough flour to create a dough you can roll out. This makes a very light dough—place cakes on parchment paper on a cookie sheet.                  
  6. Bake cakes for 15 minutes.  You can bake them 13-15 for soft “cookies” and 15-17 for crunchy.