Enjoying the Bounties of Nature: Food in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales

Signe Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Being raised on a steady diet of Disney movies and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as they appeared in the Illustrerte Klassikere, the Norwegian version of Classics Illustrated, I have come to appreciate the opening strategy Cooper uses in his tales. Just as the short films that preceded the Disney feature showing, which had a brush delineating the American continent, depositing details and finally zooming in on a specific location or event, Cooper’s texts go from the broad vista to a detailed, local view. They pull the readers into his version of the American frontier, an impressive realm replete with not only natural beauty on the large scale-an awe-inspiring encounter for European readers used to on a more restricted scale-but an impressive quantity and quality of food. People eat well and in copious quantities in Cooper!

Yet in his descriptions of all this American bounty, Cooper manages to insert a negative tone. That is, the food consumption provides an interesting means of social critique. In The Pioneers, culinary excess indicates self-aggrandizement and a selfish disregard for both nature and one’s fellow men. In The Pathfinder, Cooper certainly showcases American abundance, but he also reveals how not all troops appreciate this. He also highlights the dangers inherent in overstretched supply lines, pointing out British lack of practicality and blatant disregard for food quality and safety. His critique first emerges in descriptions of dinner tables: in The Pioneers, at the welcome dinner for Elizabeth Temple; and at Mable Dunham’s welcome dinner in The Pathfinder. These mirrored scenes, one civilian, one military, simultaneously praise and condemn the participants. Ironically, I cannot rely on the Leatherstocking Tales for all aspects of the American diet — for a fuller picture one has to consult The Crater, as well as William Cooper’s Guide in the Wilderness and Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours.

I. Civilian Excesses

All human history attests,

That happiness for man, - the hungry sinner, -

Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.

(George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, Stanza 99)

In The Pioneers, Cooper gives his readers an insight into life in the village of Templeton — and impressive details about the groaning Christmas Eve table at Judge Temple’s home characterize and critique man and society alike. But lest the reader should be tempted to disregard this as mere fantasy, the narrator claims the scene to be authentic, stating, “As the arrangements of this repast were much in the prevailing taste of that period and country, we shall endeavour to give a short description of the appearance of the banquet” (107). He does provide a description; however “short” is hardly the most fitting phrase.

In the text, Elizabeth Temple, returning to her home after having been educated in New York City to manage her father’s household, faces a banquet worthy of the ancient Romans — Petronius’s Satyricon and especially its details from Trimalchio’s dinner party come to mind. Her father’s table proudly proclaims the host’s wealth and prominence, albeit with a decided nouveau riche flair, just as Trimalchio’s did. When the small company of six sits down to eat, they face not one, but two turkeys, one roasted, one boiled, as well as fricassee of gray squirrels, fried fish, boiled fish, venison, “a chine of roasted boar’s meat” and a “boiled leg of delicious mutton” (107). Desserts abound as well, “curiously twisted and complicated figures, called ‘nut-cakes,’” as well as “sweet-cake,” “caards of gingerbread,” and “plumcake” (107). There are beverages galore, alcoholic of course, and “apple, mince, pumpkin, craneberry and custard“ combined in a “motley-looking pie” (108). On one aspect of the dinner the narrator is remarkably reticent: of the side dishes, the reader only learns that “interspersed among this load of meats, was every species of vegetables that the season and country afforded” (107). Obviously, the off-hand comment implies that these latter items — the various species of vegetables, are so ordinary that any reader, regardless of his or her geographical location on either side of the Atlantic, would know what to expect, unlike the rather local meats-squirrel, turkey, bear, and the various desserts — that have to be enumerated in happy detail. William Cooper, however, is not so casual in A Guide in the Wilderness, published in Dublin in 1810. He states, after having commented on the rich soil, that in Otsego, “The potatoes of those counties are equal to the Irish potatoe, and frequently lie in the ground all winter, under the snow, without injury from the frost. All other vegetables grow to an un-common size, and are thought preferable to those raised by gardeners near the city of New York” (37-38). Susan Fenimore Cooper, on the other hand, may explain some of ‘ The Pioneers’ casual attitude to vegetables. In Rural Hours, discussing a visit to the B-’s farm, she comments, in a decidedly off-hand manner, “Our farmers, as a general rule, are proverbially indifferent about their gardens” (104).

II. Army Provisions and Foraging

Man is a carnivorous production

And must have meals, at least one meal a day;

He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction

But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey;


Your labouring people think beyond all question,

Beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion.

(George Gordon, Lord Byron. Don Juan. Canto II, Stanza 67)

Of course, Cooper’s food odyssey does not stop when the company leaves Judge Temple’s banquet table. Instead, several of his works present a variety of food environments, both civilian and military, and covers a wide variety of geographical locations, from upstate New York to the South Seas, each with its own dietary peculiarities. A case in point is the soldier diet referenced in The Pathfinder. Here readers see the same gleeful enumeration of American foods that they saw in The Pioneers. But Oswego, one learns, “was particularly well placed to keep the larder of an epicure amply supplied.” The text lists fish, fowl, and game, “salmon of the lake ... scarcely inferior to the delicious salmon of northern Europe” and “[D]eer, bears, rabbits, and squirrels, with divers other quadrupeds, among which was sometimes included the elk or moose, helped to complete the sum of the natural supplies, on which all the posts depended, more or less, to relieve the unavoidable privations of their remote frontier positions” (130). For example, when Mabel Dunham, her uncle Cap, their guide Arrowhead with his wife Dew-of-June rendezvous with Natty Bumppo and Jasper Western, they are treated to a peculiarly domestic scene, complete with a “platter of venison steaks” of which Jasper “obtained for her [Mabel] a delicious morsel” (18), an introduction to the overabundant food supply the text catalogs.

Interestingly, Cooper here reprises the dinner scene and the father/daughter dynamic from The Pioneers. Like Elizabeth Temple, Mable Dunham has been educated elsewhere — and rather above her station, and she has been brought to her father’s post of duty to take care of him and also to secure his future by marrying a solid provider, in this case Natty Bumppo, his best friend. However, as befits the frontier setting, as well as Dunham’s place in the military hierarchy, food is served on “homely” platters, not on expensive china. I find it somehow amusing, though, that Cooper insists on good table manners, and properly conducted dinner conversations. For example, when Natty starts pontificating about the difference between natives, he carefully puts down knife and fork (131).

The officers and soldiers at the fort experience an embarrassment of culinary riches: “In a place, where viands that would elsewhere be deemed great luxuries were so abundant, no one was excluded from their enjoyment. The meanest individual at Oswego habitually feasted on game that would have formed the boast of a Parisian table” (130). Consequently, in what appears to be rewriting of the Christmas dinner from The Pioneers, the text catalogs a surfeit of dishes for the five people: “The table of Sergeant Dunham, as a matter of course, partook of the abundance and luxuries of the frontier. ... A delicious broiled salmon smoked on a homely platter, hot venison steaks sent up their appetizing odors, and several dishes of cold meats, all of which were composed of game, had been set before the guests in honor of the newly arrived visitors, and in vindication of the old soldier’s hospitality” (131). When Cap marvels at the masses of food, sergeant Dunham has to confess that the majority of the common soldiers lacks appreciation for the available food, explaining, “among two or three hundred of the fellows, there are not half a dozen who will not swear that the fish is unfit to be eaten. Even some of the lads who never tasted venison, except as poachers, at home, turn up their noses at the fattest haunches that we get here.” Instead of rejoicing in the local supplies, many soldiers prefer the “coarse and regular food of the army, which it became necessary to husband on account of the difficulty of transportation ... and at any time he would cheerfully desert his venison, and ducks, and pigeons, and salmon, to banquet on the sweets of pickled pork, stringy turnips, and half-cooked cabbage.” Why, “Even the major himself, old Duncan of Lundie, will sometimes swear an oatmeal cake is better fare than the Oswego bass, and sigh for a swallow of Highland water, when, if so minded, he has the whole of Ontario to quench his thirst in” (131). Cooper here juxtaposes the abundance of the local game to the inferior army diet and Pathfinder, comparing the Native American attitudes to food to that of white men, concluding, “to the shame of us white men be it said that we look upon blessings without satisfaction, and consider trifling evils matters of great account” (131). However, as Cap comments a page later, “give me civilized grub, if I must eat. ... Venison is well enough for your inland sailors, but we of the ocean like a little of that which we understand” (132). And this “a little of that which we understand” applies to soldiers as well as to sailors.

So what was the diet like for the British (and Colonial) soldiers in the American colonies? Ironically, although it attempts to strike a balance between protein intake and starch intake, it contained more vegetables and legumes than the fare being praised in The Pathfinder. According to J. U. Rees, in his discussion of troop rations 1759-1781, the weekly supplies per man-garrison supplies-consisted of:

7 lbs of beef or 4 lbs of pork, either fresh or salted

7 lbs of bread, or flour sufficient to bake it


3 pts of peas or beans

½ lb of rice

¼ lb of butter.








To drink:

Claret, spruce beer, rum (grogg), 1 pint Teneriffe or other strong wine per Man per day.


Shipped occasionally:

Potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, cabbage (often in form of sauerkraut) and onions.

Many soldiers grew vegetables in the garrisons — soldiers did receive vegetable seeds — , and livestock could be procured locally.

The British forces in America received most of their supplies from Great Britain; however, flour, grain, rice, and fresh meat came from the American colonies. Whether imported or locally grown, the undertaking was immense. During the French and Indian war, 120,000 British troops were stationed in the American colonies. During the Revolutionary War, the number had increased to 135,000.

The comestibles listed above do not seem unreasonable. However, Cooper’s snarky comment about the inferiority of the soldiers’ diet is largely true. The British soldiers were not expected to forage but instead to rely on “civilized food” transported from the home country. This was an enterprise rife with corruption and profiteering every step of the way between producer and recipient. Food might disappear for a variety of reasons: shipwreck and theft, for instance, and often large quantities of the food had to be condemned due to spoilage. On campaigns, the rations often were shorter — and foraging necessary, due to logistics. Supplies did not keep up with troop movements. But in The Pathfinder, foraging is presented at a routine activity, whether at a garrison or on a campaign.

Supplying the troops came under the responsibility of the commissioners of the Treasury, and a lot of documentation such as bills of freight and contracts for transportation has disappeared. The food procured in the British Isles was shipped to the colonies by the Royal Navy (food transports were often also troop transports) from Cork in Ireland — the largest western port in the British Isles — or Deptford and Cowes in the south of England. From there, the supplies went to several sub-depots in the colonies. Provisions to the military installations in the Middle Colonies, for example to Oswego, were routed over New York. In New York, supplies were loaded on to vessels of 40 or 50 tons each and transported to Albany at the cost that would not amount to, according to a letter from Mr. Chauncey Townsend in the Public Record Office in London, dated Nov. 23, 1759, above one shilling per hundred weight (1 hundred weight = 1/20 imperial ton). From Albany westward to Oswego, 260 miles mostly by water (rivers and creeks), the cost was 20 shillings per hundred weight (cwt). Albany-Ft. Edward: 9 s per c Albany-Lake George: 11 s per cwt, Albany-Ticonderoga: 13 s per cwt and Albany-Crown Point: 14 s per cwt (Raynor). Considerable sums were at stake, every step of the way to the destination, so any loss may be understandable. But regardless of quality — and it could be bad even if quality controls at Cork, Deptford and Cowes rejected spoiled supplies, what reached the various posts were a link to home, a rare treat and thus more highly prized than the readily available fish, fowl, and game.

III. Food Supplies and Terraforming

Although his anatomical construction

Bears vegetables, in a grumbling way,

Your labouring people think beyond all question,

Beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion.

(George Gordon, Lord Byron. Don Juan. Canto II, Stanza 67)

In both The Pioneers and The Pathfinder, vegetables and legumes — European and/or American — remain unacknowledged and not worth much mention, unless it is as the snarky comment “stringy turnips and half-cooked cabbage” in the discussion of the soldiers’ British provisions in the latter. Readers are left with the feeling that vegetables and legumes are of little value. Even, if they, if we are to believe Judge William Cooper, are of prodigious size. Although neglected in the Leatherstocking tales, another work, The Crater, reads like an American seed catalog, or for that matter a companion piece to Amelia Simmons 1796 American Cookery — aimed, or so the text claimed — at people of all classes — provided one could 1) pay its price and 1) read. Simmons’ collection presents practical information and cooking advice, and was a book that certainly must have been familiar to the Coopers. Incidentally, the second edition of Simmons’ book had been published in Albany, NY.

The Simmons’ connection seems particularly apt in The Crater, set in 1796, the year the book of American Cookery was first published. For instance, the ship Rancocus on its voyage to the Pacific and the Far East carries a wide assortment of “common seeds.” The text mentions “beans, peas, and Indian-corn ... cucumber seeds ... and some onions” as well as more exotic sorts like “ochre, egg-plants,” “melons, of both sorts” (78) and Mark Woolston’s personal favorite, asparagus (144). All these vegetables, presumably American staples, are listed in Simmons’ book. And in The Crater, Cooper presents vegetables not merely as sustenance and agents of colonization, but as important elements in terraforming. Focusing on a vegetarian diet — Mark refuses to eat the pig that had been on board and survived the shipwreck — he first has to create the soil itself on the barren island. This is an agricultural revolution with a vengeance! Even the most humble vegetable is an instrument in world-building. But the vegetable crop is also a strong link to home, just as the English provisions were to the British troops. It has value as both physical and mental sustenance.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Crater. Web
  • ------. The Pathfinder or, the Inland Sea. Rust, Richard D. Introd., notes, and text. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1980
  • ------. The Pioneers or, the Sources of the Susquehannah: A Descriptive Tale. Beard, James F. Hist. introd. and notes. Schachterle, Lance, text. Andersen, Kenneth M. text. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Rural Hours. Jones, David, introd. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University PressP, 1995.
  • Cooper, William. A Guide in the Wilderness. Dublin: 1810. Reprint 1986 by Paul F. Cooper.
  • Gordon, George (Lord Byron). Don Juan. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21700/21700-h/21700-h.htm. Web. Retrieved 26 May 2015
  • Raynor, Keith. “Transportation and Provisions in North America, 1759.” Letter from Mr. Chauncey Townsend, Nov. 23, 1759. www.militaryheritage.com
  • Rees, J. U. “The Foundation of the Army is the Belly.” www.revar75.com/libray/rees/belly.htm Web. Retrieved 26 May 2015
  • www.americanrevolution.org/britisharmy4.php Web. Retrieved 27 May 2015
  • Simmons, Amelia. The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of “American Cookery” 1796. NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958. Print