Regional History and Influence on Cuisine

History and Major Influences

Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, more British colonies were founded in the New World, each for a different reason. Together, the colonies represented a wide variety of people, skills, motives, industries, resources, and agricultural production. This diversity continues to be seen in the distinct features found in each area of the Mid-Atlantic states.

New York, America's First “Melting Pot”

New York's ethnic heritage began in the 17th century, when it was founded as New Amsterdam colony by the Dutch. Before long the colony's population reached 1,000, and its residents spoke more than 15 different languages. For many immigrants, the new colony meant religious freedom. New York's first religious refugees were French Huguenots who settled in what is now considered the Catskills. Religious persecution in the 18th century brought a wave of German immigrants who settled in the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Later, Pogroms in Eastern Europe brought hundreds of thousands of Jewish people to New York.

Other immigrants arrived later in search of a better living. A potato famine in Ireland sent thousands of Irish people to New York in the mid-19th century. These Irish laborers helped build the Erie Canal and the state's first railroads. In the early 20th century, Italian immigrants settled in central New York. Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians, and Russians were drawn to the industrial towns of Buffalo, Syracuse, and Schenectady.

Today, the diverse ethnic makeup of New York City significantly influences the city's cuisine. The Italian and Chinese influences are seen all over the city but especially in Little Italy and Chinatown, while the Lower East Side remains the traditional home of Russian, Polish, German, and Ukrainian Jews, who introduced the delicatessen to America. Just north of Central Park in Manhattan is Harlem, where the culinary influences of African Americans, Caribbeans, and Puerto Ricans are seen. Queens has one of the largest foreign-born populations of any county in the United States. The many ethnic enclaves are attractive to immigrants looking to live among people of the same background. Originally a haven for Italians, Germans, and other working class immigrant populations, the area now includes large numbers of Koreans, Chinese, South Asians, Caribbeans, Africans from all different nations, and people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Russian immigrants are centralized in the borough of Brooklyn in Brighton Beach, which is sometimes called Little Odessa.

New York State is one of the top dairy producers in the nation. Dairy products account for over half of the state's total farm income, with more than 10,000 dairy farms in operation. New York farmers also raise beef cattle, hogs, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. More than half of the farm-raised ducks in the country come from Suffolk County on Long Island. Apples are New York's major fruit, and there are over 3,000 apple orchards in the state.

New Jersey, “The Garden State”

New Jersey's official nickname derived from its having so many farms. The name dates back to its early European settlers who were so pleased with the fertile soil that they wrote letters to family in Europe, calling their new home a “garden spot.” Rich soil and plentiful rain make this state one of the most productive farmlands in the nations. New Jersey ranks among the top ten states in its production of blueberries, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, and apples.

Indeed, food products are one of the state's leading enterprises. Popular brand-name food items made in New Jersey include M & M's candy, Campbell's soups, Oreo cookies, Lipton tea, Heinz ketchup, and Budweiser beer. Along the coast, the fishing industry is also active. New Jersey, once known as the “Clam State,” is still a leading producer of clams. The catch off New Jersey's shores also includes scallops, swordfish, tuna, squid, lobster, and flounder.


Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular, are known as the birthplace of American independence and Philadelphia is Greek for “City of Brotherly Love.” Toward the end of the 17th century, William Penn, a member of the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers), was granted the right to begin a North American colony as a Quaker province. He invited Europeans seeking religious freedom to settle in his colony and many people, beginning with the Mennonites, accepted his invitation. The Mennonites were followed by the Amish and the Moravians, who first arrived in Philadelphia. These German-speaking people soon became known as the best farmers in the region. Over time, many of these settlers continued their migration west; however, those who remained in Pennsylvania became known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Called “Dutch” owing to a mispronunciation of the name of their language, “Deutsche,” they settled in and around Lancaster, where their descendants still live today. In a life marked by simplicity and peace, these people prepare food referred to as “plain and plenty.” Homemade bread, dumplings, doughnuts, and chicken pot pie are specialties. Hearty soups and stews utilize all foods. Home gardens provide fresh fruits and vegetables, and excess from the garden is preserved as pickles, preserves, relishes, and fruit butters.

Food is one of Pennsylvania's most important products. The Hershey factory is the world's biggest producer of chocolate. The world's largest pretzel factory is located near Lancaster, and Lancaster's Central Market is the country's oldest continuously operating farmers market. Milk is the state's most important farm product, and Pennsylvania is one of the country's leading dairy states. Apples, peaches, cherries, and grapes grow well in the region. Pennsylvania leads the nation in production of mushrooms, and Kennett Square houses the world's largest mushroom facility. White button mushrooms and exotic mushrooms such as portobellos, chanterelles, and cepes are harvested; Pennsylvania hosts an annual Mushroom Festival in the Brandywine Valley each September.

Maryland and Delaware

When the colonists arrived in the Mid-Atlantic region, they discovered that over 40 rivers fed into the Chesapeake Bay, where the mix of fresh and salt water was home to an amazing quantity and variety of seafood. The colonists quickly learned from the Native Americans how to gather oysters and blue crabs from Chesapeake Bay, which in the local language meant “great shellfish bay.” Oysters, a familiar food to the European settlers, were found in such quantities that not only were they consumed but the shells were used for brickmaking and for lining paths. Maryland's waters still produce more oysters than any other state, and the total commercial seafood catch drives the state's economy.

Historically, the main occupation of Delaware citizens has been agriculture. The original settlers concentrated on growing wheat and corn, and in the early 1800s the area was known for its peach trees. Unfortunately, in the late 1800s, a disease killed more than half of those trees. The next agricultural milestone was laid in 1920 by Cecile Steele of Sussex County. She started raising chickens for retail sale instead of just for their eggs. Today, broiler chickens are the state's most valuable agricultural product, and Perdue Farms, which is headquartered in nearby Maryland, is the nation's second largest poultry producer. Breeder Frank Perdue was known for successfully crossbreeding chickens, as well as for having developed a special all-natural feed that combined corn and soybeans with minerals from ground oyster shells and marigold petal extract. Although the marigold petal extract does not add vitamins to the chicken's diet, it is responsible for its distinctive yellow-gold skin color. The company processes approximately 50 million pounds of chicken and turkey per week and the industry continues to grow.

Virginia and West Virginia

In its earliest years, Virginia's entire economy was plantation-based. Early plantations lay along one of the state's major rivers, and the tobacco grown on that land was shipped to England. Luxury goods and other items that the colony could not produce were imported from Europe. Tobacco was the mainstay of the state, and even after the Civil War it was tobacco that kept Virginia's economy alive for many years. But as early as the 1840s, newcomers to Virginia had begun to show local farmers that they didn't have to depend on tobacco. Gradually, the Tidewater region became a major source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the nation. This truck farming continued because it did not require slave labor. Today, Virginia remains a major producer of potatoes, peanuts, and apples.

During the 19th century, many Scotch Irish and Germans arrived in what is present-day West Virginia by way of Pennsylvania. Later, immigrants from Ireland and eastern and southern Europe came to the state. Because West Virginia has very little flat land, growing crops is difficult. Livestock is the leading agricultural product, and broiler chickens bring the greatest income. Apples and peaches are grown in the eastern panhandle, and West Virginia farmers were first in the nation to produce Golden Delicious apples.

(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 2.1.5).