These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

Khalid Elhassan - August 12, 2023

Food is one of the few things we literally can’t do without. Like all other species, humans’ key priority has long been food security. Our distant and even recent ancestors were constantly worried about the possibility that there might not be enough food. Nowadays, for most of us the problem isn’t too little food, but too much, as the world’s obesity epidemic can attest. Below are twenty five things about fascinating food and feasting facts from history.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Canned pineapples. Dole, NZ

A Status Fruit That Took Europe by Storm

Pineapple today is just a Dole can away, often for around a buck. Once, however, they were exotic and rare. Christopher Columbus brought back pineapples when he returned from his second voyage in 1496. Only one of them survived the sea passage without rotting, but it sent Spain’s court into raptures. One courtier wrote that “its flavor excels all other fruits“. Pineapples stood out at the time because sweet things were not as common in Europe back then as they are today.

Sugar was rare and expensive, while fruits were only available in season. A ripe sweet pineapple could have been the tastiest thing that a European of that era had ever encountered. Then there was the exotic appearance: pineapples looked like nothing Europeans had seen before. As an envoy of Spain’s King Ferdinand put it: “[it is] the most beautiful of fruits I have seen. I do no suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exquisite and lovely appearance“.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Royal gardener John Rose presents King Charles II with the first pineapple grown in England, by Hendrick Danckerts, 1675. The Royal Collection

Pineapples in Food Diplomacy

Anything with a crown was associated with heavenly approval in an era when the divine right of kings was in vogue. The pineapple, whose spiny top resembled a crown, came to symbolize monarchy, and was known as “The King of Fruit”. Between that, the vast distances they traveled to reach Europe, their exoticism, and the fact that most people had never seen one, the possession of a pineapple became a status symbol. So much so, that they were used in international politics and diplomacy.

A French ambassador arrived in England in 1668 to mediate a Caribbean islands dispute. King Charles II ordered a pineapple from the English colony of Barbados perched atop a fruit pyramid at a dinner feast in honor of the French envoy. It was seen as a public relations triumph. It visually illustrated that England’s naval supremacy meant that the English could get pineapples from the Caribbean at will, while the French could not. From then on, the pineapple, which Charles II christened “King-Pine”, became his favorite status symbol. He even commissioned a painting of the royal gardener presenting him with one.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Transcripts from an 1807 Old Bailey case about pineapple thefts. BBC

The Pineapple Theft Wave

Pineapples began to be grown in European warehouses in the eighteenth century, but at great expense, in the ballpark of $15,000. Eating them was considered wasteful, so they were used as fancy dinner ornaments, and passed from party to party until they rotted. People who weren’t rich enough to own pineapples, but wanted to look like they were, rented them. Pineapples were so precious they warranted security guards. 1807 Old Bailey transcripts show several pineapple theft cases, including one of a Mr. Gooding who got transported to Australia for seven years for stealing seven pineapples.

In the nineteenth century, the increased reliability and cargo capacity of steamships enabled the bulk importation of pineapples. The resultant availability of pineapples at ever lower costs diminished their prestige. That annoyed the upper classes, for whom pineapples had once been a marker of status. Indeed, the notion that pineapples were available – and affordable – to all and sundry galled the snobby set. Cartoons of working class people eating pineapples became visual metaphors of the downside of progress in what the elites saw as a world turned upside down.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Union soldiers in a winter camp near Nashville, 1864. American Battlefield Trust

Food in America’s Bloodiest Conflict

Hunger is the world’s best seasoning and appetizer. The pangs of an empty stomach can transform even the most unpalatable food into a mouthwatering dish fit for royalty. That phenomenon is often demonstrated in wartime. Marauding armies, raiders, the diversion of labor to military pursuits, sieges and blockades, all combine to wreak havoc on the food supply and distribution networks. When that happens, people often have to shift for themselves and improvise to find sufficient edible food to replace the then-unappreciated, but now fondly recalled, plenty of peacetime. That happened in the US Civil War, especially in the South.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Union soldiers sit with their coffee in tin cups, their hard-tack, and a kettle at their feet. NPR

The devastation of war, the shortage of farm labor after agricultural workers joined the military, plus blockades and barricades, kept provisions away from consumers’ mouths. People had to get creative with their food. By the standards of their era, Civil War Union soldiers were usually well fed. Compared to their Confederate foes, Northern troops were routinely issued items that seemed like luxuries to Southern ones, such as sugar and coffee. Real coffee, in the form of actual or ground coffee beans, not the substitutes used by Rebels. Union soldiers were also regularly issued meat, usually in the form of salt beef or pork. Their opponents often settled for meat substitutes.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Rice with molasses became a Southern staple in the Civil War. Pinterest

Mule Meat Became a Confederate Staple Food

Basic Confederate soldiers’ rations consisted of corn bread, and little if any meat. Much of the South was an agriculturally rich region that brimmed with food. However, supply and distribution network breakdowns kept many provisions, especially meat, from the mouths of soldiers in Southern field armies. Rebel troops often had to eat mule meat, and when even that was unavailable, resorted to meat substitutes. One such was a mixture of rice and molasses, with cornmeal sometimes added to, or used in lieu of, rice. Southern rations were adequate and varied – on paper. In practice, not so much. Rebel soldiers were usually issued corn bread and bad beef, with corn bread the more constant provision. Basics like vegetables and salt were also often hard to come by.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Mules were not just beasts of burden in the Civil War: for Confederates, they were also food. Imgur

The supply of beef to Southern armies broke down quickly. As early as 1861, the Confederates’ commissary general recommended the use of rice and molasses as occasional meat substitutes. Supply difficulties persisted, however, and “occasional” became “quite often”. By 1863, things had gotten bad enough that mule became a standard ration item for Rebel soldiers. Even mule meat, rice and molasses, as well as corn bread, were often in short supply. Southerners often subsisted for days on handfuls of field peas and parched corn. In addition to food shortages, and the poor quality of what food actually reached them, Confederate soldiers often lacked adequate cooking ware and eating utensils.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
The Columbian Exchange. Pinterest

The Colombian Exchange Had Some Weird Angles

The discovery of the Americas triggered the Columbian Exchange – a massive transfer of plants, animals, peoples, cultures, technology and diseases between the Old World and the New. One plant was particularly controversial when first introduced to the Old World: the tomato. After its introduction to the Old World, the tomato eventually became a huge hit, and revolutionized cuisines. At first, however, tomatoes were met with hostility in some parts of Europe, where they were viewed as a satanic plant. The centuries-long witch hunt craze overlapped with the Age of Exploration. Anywhere from tens of thousands to half a million women were executed for witchcraft.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
A werewolf. YouTube

Less known is that thousands of additional men and women were also executed around the same time, accused of being werewolves. Authorities in much of Europe believed that witches and werewolves were closely associated. They reasoned that, just as witches concocted potions that allowed them to fly, they concocted potions that transformed people into werewolves. Key to that concoction were plants that looked a lot like tomatoes. Unfortunately, tomatoes were first imported to Europe around 1540, at the height of witch hysteria. From the fourteenth to mid seventeenth centuries, thousands of Europeans – most of them women – were killed as witches. Women accused of witchcraft were lynched by mobs, or hanged, crushed, drowned, or burned by courts, both secular and religious.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Witch hunts were common when tomatoes came to be associated with dark magic and witchcraft. National Geographic

When Tomatoes Could Get You Executed for Witchcraft

Tomatoes arrived in Europe just when authorities were trying to figure out the ingredients of witches’ flying ointment – the goop they smeared on brooms to make them fly, or on themselves to fly without a broom. That goop could also transform whoever it was smeared on into a werewolf. In 1545, the pope’s physician, Andres Laguna, described the key ingredients as henbane, nightshade, and mandrake – close botanical relatives of tomatoes. Tomato plants not only look like deadly nightshade, a suspected ingredient of witches’ magic goop, they are just about identical to the untrained eye. Some tomato varieties, such as yellow cherry, look like hallucinogenic mandrake fruits, another ingredient of the witches’ goop.

At a time when Europe was engulfed by witch hysteria, a plant that looked like an ingredient of a witches’ concoction was bound to prove controversial. Even today, many suspect those who experiment with new foods. In the 1540s, experimenting with tomatoes could get people accused of witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, many decided to leave tomatoes alone. Indeed, the only place where it was safe to have them was Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition had temporarily declared that the belief in witchcraft was heretical. The Spanish and Italians eventually incorporated tomatoes into their diets wholesale, but the English and French remained in the “tomatoes are demonic” camp for a long time.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
McDonald’s fast food restaurants around the world. Wikimedia

The World’s Largest Fast Food Chain

The ubiquitous McDonald’s is the biggest fast food chain on Earth. In 2021 it had more than 40,000 outlets, 2770 of them company owned and the rest franchises, in roughly 120 countries. Through them, it serves around 70,000 customers daily. Not only is it the world’s largest restaurant chain, McDonald’s is also one of the world’s biggest real estate holders. It owns the land on which all its restaurants are located, and leases it to its franchisees. Rent payment rivals food as the parent corporation’s biggest revenue source.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
The first McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California, May, 1940. Vintage Everyday

McDonald’s is named after brothers Maurice (1902 – 1971) and Richard (1909 – 1998) McDonald. Born in New Hampshire to Irish immigrants, they left the East Coast for California in the 1920s. In 1937, their father opened a food stand in Monrovia, and three years later, the brothers opened the first McDonald’s in San Bernardino, CA. It operated as a drive-in carhop, and at first, was focused on barbeque. Indeed, the first restaurant initially went by the name “McDonald’s Famous Barbeque“.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
The first McDonald’s restaurant after a major redesign. Amusing Planet

From Barbeque to Hamburgers, and the Birth of Fast Food

McDonald’s remained a BBQ joint until 1948, when the McDonald Brothers realized that most of their money came not from barbeque items, but from hamburgers. So the siblings, determined to make their first million bucks before they were fifty, changed course. They shuttered their San Bernardino restaurant for a redesign and rebuild. When it reopened, the barbeque was gone, replaced by a simplified menu that focused on hamburgers. It had only nine items: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, milk shakes, French fries, Coke, root beer, coffee, orange drink, and milk. The simple menu was accompanied by a simple format the brothers named the “Speedee Service System”. It became the template for all fast food restaurants.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
McDonald’s simplified menu after the 1948 relaunch. The Sun

The core of their system was a self-service counter that eliminated the need for waiters and waitresses. Customers got their food quickly because their burgers were cooked ahead of time, wrapped, and warmed under heat lamps. That system allowed the McDonald Brothers to charge only 15 cents for a hamburger – half the price of competitors. Thus they pioneered the fast food format that spread around the world. However, to the extent that most people know of an entrepreneur associated with McDonald’s, it is not the McDonald Brothers, but businessman Ray Kroc (1902 – 1984). So, whatever happened to Maurice and Richard McDonald?

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Left to right, Richard McDonald, his brother Maurice, and Ray Kroc. Startup Talky

Removing the McDonald Brothers from McDonald’s

In 1952, the McDonald Brothers designed a more efficient and eye-catching restaurant. It featured stainless steel, red and white ceramic tiles, bright colors, and 25-foot yellow arches trimmed in neon – the original Golden Arches. To encourage customers to eat quickly and not linger in the restaurant, seats were distanced to reduce socialization, and fixed and angled to place customers directly over the food. Heat was also reduced in the dining area. With their new design in hand, the brothers began to franchise their system, starting in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1953. Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman, entered the picture in 1954. After he sold the brothers eight mixers, they hired him as their franchise agent. Kroc dreamt big – way bigger than his bosses.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
The oldest still-operating McDonald’s, the chain’s third restaurant and the second to built with the Golden Arches, located in Downey, California. Wikimedia

The McDonald Brothers wanted to focus on just a few restaurants, and resisted Kroc’s attempts to improve their blueprint. Frustrated, he bought them out in 1961 for $2,700,000 – an amount that left each with a million dollars after taxes. At closing, Kroc discovered that he wouldn’t get the original McDonald’s at San Bernardino: the brothers gave it to the founding employees. It was renamed “The Big M”, because the siblings had failed to secure the rights to the McDonald’s name. An irate Kroc, who had gotten rid of the brothers but kept their name, opened a McDonald’s near the Big M, and put it out of business within a few years. Now free to run the enterprise as he saw fit, Kroc went on a massive expansion spree. By the time he died in 1984, there were more than 7500 McDonald’s restaurants in the US and around the world.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Stone Age hunter gatherers. Pinterest

How Wheat Domesticated Us

Humans lived a relatively easy hunter gatherer life, until, about 10,000 years ago. Then we began to invest more and more time and effort to cultivate wheat. Within a few millennia, humans were spending most of their time caring for wheat plants. It was hard, as wheat is finicky. Wheat is thirsty, so humans lugged water or dug channels to irrigate it. Wheat is defenseless against critters that like to eat it, so humans defended it against rabbits, locusts, and deer. It likes nutrients, so humans collected feces to scatter it over wheat fields. Wheat got sick, so humans kept a constant watch for blight and worms. It does not like to share space with other plants, so humans spent hours stooped over to remove weeds. Wheat does not like rocks or pebbles, so humans wrecked their backs to clear wheat fields.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
A wheat field. Wheat Initiative

Over millions of years, our bodies evolved to climb trees or chase gazelles in the African Savannah. Our bodies did not evolve to bend over wheat fields to clear, weed, hoe, and water them, or perform many of the tasks needed to care for that plant. Yet, wheat convinced us to do just that, and accept the resultant hernias, slipped disks, plus neck, knee, back, and foot pains as an acceptable price to pay for that plant. Seen from that perspective, the argument that it was wheat that domesticated humans, not humans who domesticated wheat, is not farfetched. The very word “domesticate” is derived from the Latin root domus, or house. Wheat convinced our hunter gatherer ancestors to settle down in houses near their farms so they could be closer to wheat.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Adolf Frederick of Sweden. Ancient Origins

This King’s Favorite Food Killed Him

Adolf Frederick (1710 – 1771) reigned over Sweden from 1751 until his death twenty years later. A weak monarch on a throne once occupied by giants who shook Europe, such as kings Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII, little of import happened in his reign. Adolf Frederick reigned more than he ruled. Most real power rested with Sweden’s Riksdag, or parliament. He made intermittent attempts to buck parliament and increase his royal prerogatives, but they all ended in failure. He remained a figurehead king, which was not a bad thing, because it marked a shift from absolutist monarchy to a constitutional one. To console himself, Adolf Frederick spent most of his reign in pursuit of pleasure. One his greatest pleasures was food, and he became a glutton.

It proved a fatal delight. Adolf Frederick’s reign ended on February 12th, 1771, after he wolfed down a gluttonously lavish dinner. His final meal included large servings of lobster, caviar, sausages, and sauerkraut, washed down with copious amounts of champagne. For desert, he had fourteen servings of semla – a sweet roll topped with whipped cream – with hot milk. Soon after dinner, he began to complain of stomach aches, which steadily worsened until he died a few hours later.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Statue of Genghis Khan outside the Mongolian parliament. Mongabay

The Mongols Enjoyed Their Food Best When Feasting Atop the Bodies of Their Defeated Foes

Good food is the centerpiece of celebratory feasts. The Mongols put a twist on by enjoying their food while feasting atop the live bodies of their defeated foes. In 1223, after he crushed the Khwarezmian Empire, Genghis Khan sent a Mongol expedition to raid into the Caucuses and southern Russia. Led by generals Subutai and Jebe, the force defeated all in its path, including the Cumans, allies of the Kievan Rus. The Rus came to the Cumans’ aid, and a vast army set out after the raiders. The Mongols retreated, and their foes pursued.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Captured Rus commander Mtislav III brought before Subutai and Jebe after the Battle of Kalka River. Imgur

For nine days, Subutai and Jebe led their pursuers on a merry chase across the Steppe. Then the Mongols suddenly turned on their by-then strung out enemies at the banks of the Kalka River. In a battle fought on May 31st, 1223, the Mongols annihilated their pursuers. The Mongols’ reputation for cruelty and bloodthirstiness was well deserved. Those who surrendered immediately often found the Mongols to be decent rulers, but woe betide those who resisted. After the Battle of the Kalka River, the Mongols decided to celebrate their victory by dining over their captives.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Mongols feasting atop captives. Pinterest

The Mongols Were Not the First to Feast Atop the Bodies of Their Enemies

The Mongols liked to make examples out of their defeated foes. After their victory at the Battle of Kalka River, captured enemy commanders were laid on the ground. A huge board was then laid over their bodies, over which the victors sat to eat, drink, and celebrate their triumph. Meanwhile, the men beneath were slowly crushed and suffocated to death. The Mongols’ feast over the bodies of defeated commanders after the Battle of Kalka River was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Al Saffah getting acknowledged as Caliph. Alamy

The first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754), nicknamed Al Saffah (“Blood Shedder”), did the same after he defeated and displaced the Ummayad Dynasty of Caliphs. Al Saffah initiated a revolt against the Ummayads, and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and eighty surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. Mid-feast, he had them seized, stabbed, and covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs. He then bade the other guests to sit down and enjoy their food and drink atop them.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Union soldiers getting their caffeine fix. Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Food Shortages Led to Creativity in the US Civil War

Hunger is not only a great appetizer, but is also a great prod to get people’s culinary creative juices flowing. In the US Civil War, inadequate and frequently interrupted food supplies led Southern soldiers to come up with new dishes. The most famous – or infamous – of those were “cush” or “slosh”. Small bits of beefs were placed in bacon grease, water was added, and the mixture was stewed. Corn bread was crumbled into the concoction, and stewed again until all the water had evaporated.

Another recipe began with a stew of potatoes and whatever meat was available. Then flapjack batter was added, a spoonful at a time. The mixture was stirred together, and as a Rebel soldier recalled, the next morning: “we got meat, bread, and potatoes all in the same slice“. Another recipe used potatoes and green apples boiled together, then mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, or onion. “Slapjack” used a thick mixture of flour or cornmeal fried in bacon grease in a skillet until the bottom turned brown, before it was flipped over to cook the other side.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Confederate soldiers cooking in a camp. Ebay

Food Was a Key Factor in the Civil War’s Outcome

Union and Confederate soldiers liked their caffeine fix, but only the Northern men at arms had regular access to coffee made from real coffee beans. The Union blockade made coffee rare in the Confederacy, so Southerners often settled for substitutes. Rebels desperate for a cup of Joe brewed up chicory, peanuts, peas, rye, dried apples, acorns, dandelion roots, or whatever else could trick their senses into believing it was coffee. Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart described the use of potatoes as coffee substitutes:

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Heritage Auctions

Potatoes were peeled and cut into “chunks” about the size of coffee berries. The pieces were spread out in the sun to dry, then parched until brown, after which they were ground. The grounds were mixed with a little water until a paste resulted, after which hot water was added. When the grounds settled to the bottom of the coffee pot, the beverage could be poured and drunk“. Coffee beans became such hot commodities in the Confederacy that one Atlanta jeweler used them instead of diamonds in breast pins.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Raqefet Cave and evidence of a 13,000 year old brewery. Sci News

Booze Made Humans What We Are

Researchers have recently found evidence of an extensive beer brewing operation, about 13,000-years-old, in Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel. As the research team’s leader put it: “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world“. The people who brewed that beer, the Natufians, were hunter-gatherers, not settled farmers. Indeed, their beer brewing predates by millennia the earliest known permanent settlement, and predates most estimates of when bread was first made. That discovery lends supports to the notion that beer, not bread, is what set the stage for civilization. People wanted to drink beer, and for that, they needed grain. In order to have a steady supply of grain for beer, they needed to settle down to tend their fields. Beer thus motivated humans to settle down into permanent farming communities.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Stone Age people, just like modern folk, liked to chill with a beer. Springer Nature

Indeed, the love of booze might have been a key motivation for why hunter-gatherers settled down to farm, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. The first cultivated crops, such as wheat and barley in the Middle East, or rice in the Yangtze River Valley, are great for alcoholic drinks, whether beer or rice wine. The desire to get drunk is an ancient behavior. People liked the psychoactive effects: among other things, it relieved stress and anxiety. Also, drinking with strangers lowered inhibitions, reduced everybody’s ability to deliberately lie and deceive, and thus made people more trusting and trustworthy. That enhanced trust improved the ability to cooperate, and created – or strengthened – bonds with others.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Spinach is not the super food Popeye led many children to believe it is. Imgur

The Spinach Super Food Myth

Generations of children were entertained by Popeye the Sailor Man. Thanks to him, many kids have dreamt that they could gain super powers by overcoming their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was an extraordinarily beneficial food item. Sadly, Spinach is nothing special – at least as a source of super powers. Kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded by an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. There was a silver lining, however, as the kids learned one of life’s early lessons: don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple mathematical mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other vegetables. He discovered that spinach’s iron content was 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving. However, when he wrote his findings, Wolf misplaced a decimal point. He put down spinach’s iron content as ten times greater than what it actually was: 35 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving, instead of 3.5 milligrams. It was not until 1937 that somebody double checked Wolf’s math, and spotted the error. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Thomas Jefferson. Time for Kids

Thomas Jefferson Controlled His Slaves With Food

The control of food has long been a means to exercise power, and slave owners throughout history knew that. Take Thomas Jefferson. The Founding Father and leading member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries. On the other hand, Jefferson pursued his happiness in a slave-operated plantation. Although he called slavery a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot“, Jefferson lived a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Plantation slaves. National Geographic Society

Jefferson argued that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, by which all humans have a right to personal liberty. He told all who would listen that it was necessary to end slavery. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. Nonetheless, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life, with all the violence that accompanied that. He also used food as a means to control and compel his slaves to do his bidding. Throughout his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. Over 400 of them lived and worked in his Monticello estate. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them, and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Enslaved children. News Dog Media

Food as a Means to Manipulate Child Slaves

Thomas Jefferson’s child slaves toiled in his tobacco fields: children were the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. When Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which required less manual labor, Jefferson had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades“. He used food to make the kids work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes. Jefferson had a clock installed on a Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Monticello today. Monticello Org

Jefferson had cabins built for the house slaves about a hundred yards from and facing the mansion. Blacks who worked the fields were housed further away. That way, they and their backbreaking labor would be out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses. Originally, Jefferson’s slaves lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average. Their lot was still quite horrible, but not as horrible as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Adolf Frederick: The Swedish King Who Ate Himself to Death

Atlas Obscura – When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft and Werewolves

BBC – The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Status Pineapple

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Bear, James A. Jr. – Jefferson at Monticello (1967)

Biography – Gary Gilmore

Brodie, Fawn McKay – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)

CNN – ‘Game of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote the Red Wedding

Encyclopedia Britannica – McDonald’s, American Corporation

Encyclopedia Britannica – Columbian Exchange

Gabriel, Richard – Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General (2004)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

History Collection – How George Cheyne Created the First Fad Diet, the Georgian Diet

Kroc, Ray – Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s (1977)

Library of Congress – Civil War Thanksgiving Foods

National Geographic Genographic Project – The Development of Agriculture: The Farming Revolution

National Park Service – Fort Scott: Cooking Food Rations

Nordstjernan – King-Sized Meal: A Cautionary Tale

NPR – When the Supreme Court Decided Tomatoes Were Vegetables

Paris Review, April 25th, 2018 – The Strange History of the “King-Pine”

Ranker – Old School Fast Food Photos That Remind Us of ‘The Way We Ate’

Ranker – Unconventional Foods People Ate to Survive the Civil War

Salon – Drinking Culture: Why Some Thinkers Believe Human Civilization Owes its Existence to Alcohol

Slingerland, Edward – Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (2021)

Spoon University – The 9 Items on McDonald’s Very First Menu

Times of India, June 9th, 2014 – The World’s First McDonald’s Restaurant

Williams, John Alden, ed. – The History of Al-Tabari, Volume XXVII: The Abbasid Revolution, AD 743-750 (1985)