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Olive Oil and Vinegar in Colonial America

We Americans love our traditions. Whether national, regional, cultural, or just within our own families, traditions are treasured.

Our ancestors were no different. Colonial America was made up of groups of people immigrating from different parts of the world looking for space that could be theirs and the freedom to live the way they wanted. All those different cultures coming together came to be referred to as a “melting pot.” A sort of homogenized soup of influences from Spain, Mexico, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and wherever else people arrived from.

Did our favorite food traditions exist then? We here at Old Town Olive spend a lot of time thinking about olive oil and vinegar, so we did a little research to see if the two best condiments in the world (in our opinion…) were used by in colonial America.


Olive Oil

The primary fats used in cooking and baking in the colonies were butter and lard. Butter was delicious, but wasn’t produced year-round and didn’t keep well in heat. Lard kept better, but didn’t have the taste—plus it had to be used for other endeavors like making soap. Many Old Tyme recipes called for butter, lard, or a mix of the two, which basically indicates that a cook could use whatever she had on hand.

The colonists did have olive oil. But since it wasn’t produced on the continent, it was quite expensive and so was mostly used in salad dressings. The only recorded segments of the American colony population that regularly used olive oil in baking and cooking was the Spanish. Not surprising, since it was so popular in the country they emigrated from.



Vinegar was immensely popular in the colonies! It was used primarily in two ways: as a health tonic—they believed it had cooling properties and could bring down a fever. And as a cleaner—many believed that illness came from foul air, so whenever something stank, they would scrub it down with vinegar. No more stink meant no more possibility of illness.

Health tonics were taken in a couple of popular forms: the switchel and the shrub. A switchel was a drink made from vinegar (usually apple cider), water, and molasses. (Of course, college kids added alcohol to theirs to make undercover cocktails.) A switchel was tart, sweet, refreshing, and since vinegar was thought to prevent illness and reduce fever, it was drunk on every street corner, in every home, and out in the fields. Even bars served this popular drink.

The shrub was a close derivative of the switchel, but instead of getting its sweetness from molasses, the drink got its sweetness—and a variety of flavors—from fermented fruit.


Another Interesting Tradition

We’re coming up on the holiday season when serving roasted turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce will be a mainstay of many big family meals across the country. The colonial Americans who came from Europe and Spain already knew how to eat turkey—those recipes are documented well before anyone from those nations crossed the Atlantic to see what was over here. So, when the colonists arrived and found flocks of wild turkeys numbering in the thousands, they knew exactly what to do with them!

One early recipe printed in a book called American Cookery, published in 1796, set forth a staple family dinner recipe that sounds very familiar. The cook is told to stuff a turkey with bread stuffing and roast it, basting it while it roasts, then serve it with cranberry sauce.

Is it November yet? That sounds awfully good!

We’re entering the season of traditional holidays and meals. Whatever your family loves and lives for, enjoy it with them. Add a little olive oil and maybe try making a switchel or shrub to raise a traditional glass to our determined ancestors!

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