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Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876

In 1834, Harriet Martineau set out upon a grand adventure throughout America and recorded her thoughts in a journal, parts of which are interesting from a material culture and a culinary point of view.  Of Montgomery, and what she saw traveling on to Mobile and New Orleans, her description was similar to that of Philip Henry Gosse who wrote of his surroundings in nearby Pleasant Hill, AL in roughly the same time period.  (see previous post). 

Harriet did not give the names of any of the people she stayed with in Alabama and while we know she travelled through Creek Territory to get to Montgomery, we do not know in which direction her final destination lay, only that it was seven miles outside what was then the town limit.  I would have enjoyed retracing her footsteps as we did Gosse, had she left any indication of where the plantation was or who the family was that owned it. 

Like Gosse, she wrote of the dog-trot houses and cabins although she did not use that particular term when describing the homes in the area.  The friends she went to visit outside of Montgomery were about to build a “good house”, yet during her visit their abode, like their neighbors, was, “a log-house, with the usual open passage in the middle.  Roses and honeysuckles, to which humming-birds resort, grew before the door.  Abundance of books and handsome furniture and plate were within the house, while daylight was to be seen through its walls.  In my well-furnished chamber, I could see the stars through the chinks between the logs.”  Perhaps enamored with the color of the blooms and their heady fragrance, she found the log dog-trot “delightful”, and said, “During the summer, I should be sorry to change this primitive kind of abode for a better”. 

She spoke of those who chose to camp in their wagons and prepare their own meals rather than pay for lodging and poor fare.  In her case the hotel in Montgomery had been alerted to her arrival, yet when she arrived at just past eleven in the evening her room wasn’t ready until around 1 a.m. 

Although peaceful, she encountered Creek Indians as she traveled through their territory, some overcome with what their friends termed, “whiskey too much”.  The roads were bad, but the scenery and the blooms from various plants beautiful.  As they started up a hill into Montgomery in the coach, the men, as was customary, disembarked and walked behind the coach.   

 Martineau in later life

She was not complementary as to the habits of the Alabamians, speaking of numerous murders and duels she was told occurred almost daily, the deplorable lack of education found amongst the planters and their children, and the debilitating backwardness that naturally resulted from being unexposed to the social graces found in less isolated surroundings. 

Harriet found Columbus, GA more pleasing than Alabama and wrote in her journal about the rather substantial breakfast she ate in the hotel in Columbus before going on to Montgomery.  She had tea, coffee, cornbread, buns, buck-wheat cakes, broiled chicken, bacon, eggs, rice, hominy, fish, fresh and pickled, and beef-steak. 

She visited friends on a plantation near Montgomery and commented on how it was provisioned saying most articles of food were provided on the plantation.  “Wine and groceries are obtained from Mobile or New Orleans, and clothing and furniture from the North”. 

She described the kitchen-garden in which peas were ripening and strawberries were turning red in the middle of April.  “We had salads, young asparagus, and radishes”. 

She observed the routine fare of the daily meals saying except for what vegetables were in season, the meal plan varied little.

Breakfast was served at 7 a.m. and consisted of, “hot wheat bread, generally sour, cornbread, biscuits, waffles, hominy, dozens of eggs, broiled ham, beef-steak, or broiled fowl, tea and coffee.

What she called lunch, cake and wine or liqueur, was served at 11:00.

The main meal of the day, she termed dinner, was at 2 p.m. and was usually, “now and then soup (not good), always roast turkey and ham, a boiled fowl…a tongue…a small piece of nondescript meat, which generally turns out to be pork disguised; hominy, rice, hot cornbread, sweet potatoes, potatoes mashed with spice, very hot; salad and radishes, and an extraordinary variety of pickles.  Of these, you are asked to eat everything with everything else.  If you have turkey and ham on your plate, you are requested to add tongue, pork, hominy, and pickles.  Then succeed pies of apple, squash, and pumpkin, custard, and a variety of preserves as extraordinary as the preceding pickles:  pineapple, peach, limes, ginger, guava jelly, cocoa-nut, and every sort of plums.  These are almost all from the West Indies.  Dispersed about the table are shell almonds, raisins, hickory and other nuts; and to crown the whole large blocks of ice cream.  Champagne is abundant, and cider frequent.  Ale and porter may now and then be seen, but claret is the most common drink”. 

Having ice cream in April means that the plantations had ice houses in which ice was stored.  After being cut in blocks during the winter freeze, it was tightly packed in layers of sawdust and hay for use as long as it lasted. 

The last meal of the day, Supper, was taken at about six or seven in the evening, sometimes at the table, but more often trays were passed around and participants balanced their plates on their laps.  “Then follow tea, coffee, sliced ham or hung-beef, and sweet cake”. 

NOTE:  Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876 was of French Huguenot lineage, born in England, and was a celebrated writer who supported herself and her family through her writing after her father’s business failed.  During her visit to the U.S. she visited with no less than Dolly and James Madison, the former President, at their home.   – Martineau, Harriet.  Society in America.  Pub. 1837.  Paris.