April 6, 2010
Food in Hoosier History

Food and Food Production in Hoosier History – An  Introduction

Food is an essential element for all living creatures; it provides the nourishment for daily survival.  The production of food also is closely tied our own perception of the land.  From the explorations and colonization of the New World to the settlement and westward migrations of the 19th century and to the global migrations that we witness in the 21st century, human beings have desired to conquer land and harness its productive capabilities – whether to grow corn, cotton, wheat or tobacco or to raise livestock. 

But, food also is an expression of culture, illustrating how people adapt to their environments and transplant the traditions and foodways to which they have been accustomed.  So, while we often associate corn and hogs with the history of the Hoosier state, there is so much more to Indiana and its food traditions because of the diverse peoples who have chosen to call Indiana home.

Native Americans

Native Americans initially inhabited the land that became the state of Indiana in 1816.  They lived in scattered villages where many tribes, such as the Miami, Potawatomi, Lenape (Delaware), and others, engaged in agriculture—raising melons, squash, pumpkins, beans, and maize, which was a staple of their diet.  The Native Americans also hunted the abundant deer, bison, and small game that were found in the deep woods.  They gathered berries, nuts, and roots, and fished the rivers and streams that swarmed with assorted fishes.  As Europeans arrived in the region, the Native people began to trade corn and other goods – until they were removed by treaties with the new U.S. government to lands further west.  While Native Americans do not constitute a sizeable portion of the state’s population in the 21st century, their cultural and culinary impact is most evident in the presence of corn across the Hoosier landscape.    

Early Statehood

The new state of Indiana was peopled by individuals who came to take advantage of the abundant cheap land.  A majority of settlers came from the Upland South (e.g. Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina), while smaller portions came from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.  German and Irish immigrants also were among the early settlers.  Each group transplanted its distinct culture and traditions to the Hoosier state—instead of blending or melting these together, they created a cornucopia of diverse practices and traditions.

From the beginning, Hoosiers were primarily farmers.  After acquiring their land, they cleared a portion and began to plant corn, the foundation of pioneer agriculture.  Corn could be pounded or milled into meal or distilled into the settlers’ favorite beverage of the day – whiskey.  The early farm also included livestock – milk cows, chickens, and razorback hogs.  Most farm families maintained kitchen gardens outside their back door with herbs and vegetables.   

Subsistence farming was very limited and occurred only in the initial phase of settlement.  As the number of settlers increased, farmers joined the emerging market economy by exchanging goods in their communities and sending surplus goods to local and regional markets.  The arrival of the railroad beginning in 1847 also helped to connect Indiana’s farms to regional and national markets.

Late 19th Century – An Age of Agricultural Education

By the 1850s, food production was a key component of the state’s economy.   Indiana was among the nation’s top five producers of corn and hogs.  To promote “modern” farming, Indiana established the State Board of Agriculture in 1851 to organize county agricultural societies.  The next year, the first State Fair was held in Indianapolis to highlight and promote agriculture throughout the state.

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established a nationwide chain of land grant colleges and universities to teach agricultural and mechanical arts.  As a result, Purdue University was founded in 1869.  Its agricultural program emphasized scientific farming and worked to establish the county extension program, which helped farmers learn new farming methods, adopt new technologies, and increase production.

Indiana’s population became more diverse during the last half of the 19th century.   Large numbers of African Americans left the post-Civil War South to seek new opportunities in the north.  At the same time, there was a steady growth in the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.  Most of these new Hoosiers chose to reside in urban places where industries and assorted services offered job opportunities.  As a result, new foods and diverse cultural practices again found their way into Indiana life.

 20th Century – An Age of Modernization and Contradictions

The 20th century was an era of contradictions for Hoosier farmers.  Indiana farms experienced a steady increase in productivity and importance in the national markets.  However, the total number of Hoosier farms declined throughout the century as the average size of farms increased.  In 1900, there were nearly a quarter million farms in the state, averaging 100 acres in size.  By 2008, there were approximately 61,000 farms averaging 243 acres. 

Successes in food production by Hoosier farmers could be attributed to several key factors.   Mechanization of the farm, such as tractors, cultivators, milking machines, and other labor-saving devices, escalated rapidly and improved the productivity of Indiana’s farms.  The introduction of hybrid corn seed as well as commercial fertilizers and chemical herbicides and insecticides helped to increase output.  Advances in livestock led to a doubling of hog production, milk production per cow, and egg production per hen.  Hoosier farmers also began to grow new crops, such as soybeans, as encouraged by Purdue agricultural scientists. 

Indiana’s population continued to change throughout the 20th century.  European immigration dropped off after World War I.  African Americans continued to migrate from the rural South to the urban centers of Indiana.  By mid-century, immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and Asia and refugees from nations around the world constituted a large portion of the state’s overall population growth.  As they settled in Indiana’s towns and cities, their presence became more noticeable in the proliferation of grocery stores, restaurants, and other ethnically-related businesses.

Indiana, the World, and the Future

By 2008, Indiana agriculture added some $25 billion to Indiana’s economy from farm, food, and other products.  Farmers received nearly $8 billion in cash receipts for the top five agricultural products – corn, soybeans, hogs, dairy products, and eggs.  Indiana also ranked 10th in the nation in overall agricultural production and in the top five for soybeans, corn, and hogs.

In the past several years, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Lt. Governor Becky Skillman have led numerous trade missions around the globe to expand markets for Indiana agricultural products.  Such efforts have made Indiana the 10th leading agricultural exporter in the nation.

Probably the most significant opportunity for the future of Indiana agriculture is its entry into the bioenergy business.  Ethanol produced from corn is leading the way as several new processing plants have begun production in recent years.  New federal energy policies offer opportunities to explore other energy derived from cellulosic and other agriculture resources.  Many livestock farms are using methane capture technology to convert that gas into fuel.  Thus, the production of biofuels and bioenergy, including wind farms, could lead to an increase in the value of Indiana’s farmlands and stimulate continued growth of food production in the state.

As Indiana’s food products are finding customers around the globe, Indiana itself is becoming more global than ever.  People hailing from most of the world’s nations can be found throughout the state.  Their cultural impact is most evident in the growing number of ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, and specialty food sections of regular grocery stores in Indiana’s cities and towns.  All in all, that makes for an interesting buffet of foods and cultures for a state that has been known principally for its corn and hogs.

Sneak peek at what’s ahead: 

This section will offer opportunities to dig deeper into the role that food and food production has played in Indiana from its beginning to the present.  Among the topics to be addressed will be:

• Excerpts of historical diaries and letters that highlight food, food preparation, and eating habits of Hoosiers over time.

• An examination of Indiana and regional cookbooks and how those books reflect our culture and the development of foodways.

• Highlights of historic food programs throughout the state and region.

• Indiana agriculture and food production and their contributions to national and global economies.

• Links to websites, such as collections at historical societies and libraries and data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offer assorted historical information on food-related subjects.

• And more!                                                                        

Posted In: Miscellaneous

One response to “Food in Hoosier History”

  1. Steve Hill says:

    This is really an excellent and helpful article. I’m currently working on a paper on local food production for my American Studies class here at Purdue University and have found a lot of good information for it thanks to this article. Great work!

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