Photo by DSCZ via Getty Images

Cheers to small beer

Kat Kinsman
July 04, 2018

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to approve the wording of the United States Declaration of Independence 242 years ago today. The members probably didn't do that on an empty stomach or pop down to Ninth and Passyunk for a celebratory cheesesteak afterward. There wasn't as big a crowd as we all might have been led to assume through paintings and propaganda, and most of the eventual signers didn't scribble down their John Hancocks for almost another month, but hey—this is as good an excuse as any to dig into culinary history and find out what the Founding Fathers may have declared delicious that morning.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most passionate epicures to ever become president, but he didn't ascend to that office for another 15 years. Yup, he made a big fuss about waffles and brought back an iron from Holland, and he grew all kinds of apples and grapes at Monticello. But according to The Presidents' Cookbook, when when he went to Washington, "Jefferson had two of his slaves, Edy and Fanny, brought from Monticello to serve as apprentices to [his chef], so that when the President retired, they could continue the French tradition at Monticello. Annette, the Monticello cook, also came to Washington so the President could have the Southern breakfast he so much prized. She 'knew just how he like batter cakes, fried apples, and hot breads served with bacon and eggs at breakfast.'" So yeah—his breakfast, and that of some of the other lawmakers was possibly made by slaves. Nothing to celebrate or emulate there, but vital to note if we're going to be accurate with the history and all.

But let's say we're talking about an "average" person weathering the Revolutionary war. The size and timing of breakfast varied according to the wealth of the eaters: earlier and plainer for the poorer folks, and later and somewhat more elaborate for the rich. Bread and milk were fairly standard fare along with hoe cake or johnny cake, cornmeal mush, or porridge that had been cooked all night over embers. More well-to-do families in the North, might have cold meat in the mix, while those in the Middle Colonies sat down to scrapple and head cheese.

Despite tea's tendency to be cold-brewed in the water of the Boston Harbor, there was still plenty of it to be found in pots up and down the coast at breakfast time—usually in a double-fist with a pint of small beer. That's not a measure of quantity, mind you, but rather the term for a lower-alcohol, almost soda-like beverage beverage made with molasses and hops or malt and left to ferment. Even at war in the years before his presidency, when he was in the Virginia militia, George Washington was known to carry a recipe for small beer in a notebook that read:

To make Small Beer

Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste. Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gallons into a Cooler, put in 3 Gallons Molasses while the Beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the Cooler & strain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. Let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm. Then put in a quart of Yeast if the weather is very cold, cover it over with a Blanket & let it work in the Cooler 24 hours. Then put it into the Cask leave the Bung[hole] open till it is almost done working Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.

It was a holdover from the colonists' British past and meant more for hydration than intoxication—plus a little prevention. Boiling the water kills off harmful bacteria that might exist in plain old water, making it a safer drinking option at the time. A solid reason to drink beer in the morning—how very revolutionary. 

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