Firecakes & Turtle Soup: 4th Of July Fare From American History
Image Credit: Are firecakes and turtle soup as American as apple pie?

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HOT DOGS and relishes, hamburgers fresh off the grill, buttery corn on the cob, juicy wedges of watermelon: think 4th of July — the celebration of American Independence — and these are the foods that typically come to mind. However, while these barbeque favourites evolved over the years to become part of the July 4th food-scape, America’s founding fathers dined and supped on entirely different dishes. Let’s take a look at a few: 


Part of the reason the British forces were unable to suppress the Colonies is because they couldn’t provision their troops adequately. On the other hand, the American soldiers — at least in the early stages of the revolutionary war — had sufficient rations. This included:

1 lb. beef, or 3/4 lb. pork, or 1 lb. salt fish, per day; 1 lb. bread or flour, per day; 3 pints of peas or beans per week, or vegetable equivalent; 1 half pint of rice, one pint of Indian meal, per man, per week; 1 quart of spruce beer or cider per man per day, or nine gallons of molasses, per company of 100 men per week; 3 lbs. of candles to 100 men per week, for guards; 24 lbs. soft, or 8 lbs. hard soap, for 100 men per week.

Not mentioned officially was another essential: vinegar. The soldiers received a specific amount that they could use to make water from natural sources safe to drink. 

However, as the war continued, the rations grew thin. From December 1777 to the following June, as George Washington and his men were stationed at their winter camp of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, food supplies had run low. There was little fresh produce or meat, and bread didn’t make it through very often. Flour did though — so the men found an ingenious way to make the most of their flour ration. They prepared “firecakes” — which we may think of as very thick and hard rotis.

Signing of the American Declaration of Independence


The firecakes were made by forming a dough with flour and water. Occasionally, the soldiers would add salt if they had any in their rations. Then thick, hand-sized “biscuits” or “cakes” would be formed with the dough and arranged on stones/rocks that were placed near the fire for several hours. Alternately, the “cakes” would be placed directly in the ashes of the fire to bake. 

The final result was a charred-on-the-outside, doughy-on-the-inside, mostly tasteless flour-cake, but it could be cooled and stored for longer periods of time than fresh bread, and of course it was a whole lot better than starving.

Firecakes may not feature in 4th of July celebrations, but have found dedicated fans among a different set of folks: survivalists.


After the Declaration of Independence was signed in July of 1776, for quite some time later, a tradition followed of honouring the day with a dish of turtle soup with sides like poached salmon in egg sauce, peas and new potatoes boiled in their jackets. How did the custom emerge? It is believed that this was the meal John Adams (one of the founding fathers and later, the second President of the United States) had with his wife to celebrate the historic occasion. Seemingly, they followed up the meal with a dessert of Indian pudding or apple pandowdy. However, this menu may be more in the realm of the anecdotal or apocryphal than the truth. In a letter he wrote to his daughter the next day, Adams dwelt at length on the various festivities, but didn’t elaborate on the details of his dinner.


A great many recipes with patriotism as their theme gained ground at this time and in the decade that followed. The newspapers of the period were apt to include directions for preparing Independence, Federal and Ratification Cakes, Congressional Bean Soup and so on. What isn’t documented, however, is the meal that the founding fathers had on the original Day of Independence in 1776. It is known that the City Tavern in Philadelphia was the base of their celebrations. The other name for it was the Merchant Coffee House. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere were all known to frequent it, and that 4th of July was no different. 

Sign outside City Tavern. iStock


It must be noted that while taverns of the time — mainly meant to service those on the road — were not known for their exceptionally splendid fare. The food and drink varied greatly in quality from establishment to establishment: some may have served simple but wholesome and delicious meals, at others, the choice of ingredients and preparation would have left a lot to be desired. Ham, bacon, fowl, fresh meat or fish, dried venison, Indian or wheaten bread, butter, eggs, milk and cheese were usually listed on the bill of fare, while spirits spanned cider, rum, brandy or whiskey.

However, the taverns in cities were an entirely different sort of place. By the 18th century, these had emerged as places of entertainment outside the home. Fine dining on veal, beefsteak, green peas, fresh raspberries — as Alexander Hamilton once did — was par for the course. Puddings, pickles and jellies, imported cheeses and lemons, fresh produce and all kinds of fresh and cured meat, delicacies like oysters and eels, wine and Madeira were all known to be available in these more genteel avatars of taverns. The City Tavern is quite likely to have had a very similar repast on July 4, 1776. Perhaps a roast with potatoes, followed by buttered green peas, eggs, fish, a salad, pastries and sweets, rounded off with fruit, cheese and a pudding is exactly what Jefferson and his ilk ate to mark this milestone in American history.