In our age of weekly farmers’ markets, drive-thru smoothie shops, and 24/7 grocery stores, it can be hard to truly understand the importance of fruit to the average colonial Virginian. They, however, would have been well aware of how rare it was and of what it meant to have it. Indeed, they were so aware of its rarity and luxury that they bought and used special dishes in which to serve the fruit. We recently wrote in “Fine and Fashionable Fruit Dishes” about just such white, salt-gazed fruit dish excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Just how rare was fresh fruit in colonial America and, when it was available, where did it come from?
Historians have surveyed old records from stores, taverns, and ordinary households to figure out how often early Americans ate fruit. One such study ranked different foods according to the amount of money spent on them. In this ranking, fruit came in eighth after meat/poultry, grains, alcohol, and other foods. Ultimately, paired with nuts, fruit accounted for less than 3% of the overall food expenses in Virginian households.
The same study examined the food expenses of people at all levels of society, whether an anonymous wigmaker or the royal governor. From 1769 to 1770, fruit/nuts were nearly 8% of the royal governor’s food expenses while most other Virginians spent less than 1% of their food expenses on fruit/nuts. Fruit was for the wealthy and was a rare luxury in 18th century America.
The rarity of this luxury was a direct result of where fruit grew and how people got it. There were two options when it came to fruit for the colonists; locally grown or imported. For most, of course, locally-sourced seasonal produce was really the only option.
A global exchange of livestock, diseases, fruits and vegetables sometimes called “The Columbian Exchange” began with European exploration of the Americas in 16th century. By the mid-1700s, the American colonies were a unique place for growing fruit. Europeans transplanted old favorites — quinces, apples and peaches — to the New World. They enjoyed new varieties of fruits — strawberries, cherries, and grapes — in America that had closely related cousins in England and Europe. Then, they added to their diet fruits naturally indigenous to the Americas. These included fruits well-known today like cranberries and blueberries as well as fruits now largely forgotten like pawpaws. With all that variety, early Americans still had to settle for what could be grown in their specific climate and at a particular time of the year. Even local fruit, whether transplanted or indigenous, was an expensive luxury.
Naturally, tropical species like citrus fruits and pineapples became the zenith of the colonial fruit hierarchy. If someone really wanted to demonstrate their wealth, these imported fruits were the way to go. They could not be acquired locally and indicated the buyer had deep pockets as well as a more sophisticated palate. While wealthy Virginians attempted to grow some of these fruits in private “orangeries”, the precursor to modern greenhouses, they mostly came from islands in the Caribbean. Transportation made them extraordinarily expensive but their expense did not mean there was any shortage of uses for them.
Because they symbolized wealth and simply had a short shelf life, fresh fruit was displayed on a fruit dish or epergne as a decoration and status symbol. Fruit’s value also came from its multiple uses within a home. Cookbooks of the time gave plenty of uses for fruit ranging from the familiar such as apple dumplings to the foreign like salt pickled lemon. The most commonplace recipes (or receipts as they were referred to in that period) concentrated on preserving fruits so that colonists could enjoy their flavors throughout the year.
To conclude, we present a receipt from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a book we know was part of the Lewis family library at Kenmore. The receipt’s colonial version comes from a first edition facsimile from 1747.
An Orange Fool – Colonial Version
TAKE the Juice of six Oranges and six Eggs well beaten, a Pint of Cream, a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, a little Cinnamon and Nutmeg; mix all together, and keep stirring over a slow Fire, till it is thick, then put in a little Piece of Butter, and keep stirring till cold, and dish it up.
An Orange Fool – Version updated for today
1 c Heavy Cream
1 c Orange Juice (3 Fresh squeezed oranges or store brought)
1/3 c Sugar + 1 tsp sugar
½ Orange zest
½ Tbs butter
1 egg + 2 egg yolks
½ tsp Vanilla Extract
½ tsp Cinnamon
¼ tsp Nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees
- Place four 6-ounce (or six 4-ounce) ovenproof cups or ramekins in a deep baking pan just large enough to hold them. Fill baking pan with enough water to come halfway up the pan.
- Add cream, orange juice, zest, and 1/3 c of sugar to a small saucepan and bring to medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture starts to steam. Add butter.
- Meanwhile whisk the egg, yolks, and vanilla extract together in a separate bowl.
- Once the orange cream mixture has come to temperature remove from heat and use a ladle to slowly pour it into egg mixture while vigorously whisking the eggs.
- Once the cream and eggs are fully incorporated return them to the small saucepan and put back onto low heat. Let the custard steam but NOT simmer (approx. 175 degrees).
- Take off heat and pour into ramekins through a fine strainer.
- Mix the remaining sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together and sprinkle onto each cup.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the custard is just set
- Let cool at room temperature for 1 hour and serve. OR chill in the refrigerator overnight for a cool summer dessert.
Next time you pour yourself a fresh glass of orange juice, buy some fresh fruit at the grocery store, or stop a farm stand by the road for apples remember the luxury that you are enjoying. This aspect of our daily lives is an opportunity of which our forefathers would have been sincerely jealous.
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services
 Walsh, Lorena S., Ann Smart Martin and Joanne Bowen. Provisioning Early American Towns. The Chesapeake: A Multidisciplinary Case Study. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1997: 141.
 Ibid: 300.