Mary McNeill McEachern was born in 1843 and grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She went to school in a small town between Fayetteville and Chapel Hill where she made several friends, many of whom were not originally from North Carolina. In 1876 she traveled up to Fishkill-on-Hudson, New York to visit one of her old classmates and wrote several letters home to her family detailing everything from traveling by train through cities like Raleigh and Baltimore to the different food practices that she witnessed in New York.
In the very first of her 22 letters, Mary details her first stop on her journey to New York which was Raleigh, North Carolina. She meets the governor of the state and describes him as a “fat healthy man” which speaks to the cultural values at the time. Throughout history, the wealthy were often overweight and it was seen as a status symbol because it proved that you could afford to eat more than you needed. In her third letter she reaches New York and discusses her first few meals in the northern state. Among them, she tried new fruits and berries including cherries, raspberries, gooseberries, and currants. The food seemed so foreign that only the bread seemed remotely similar to what she could get back home in North Carolina. In later letters she discusses the frequency with which she eats certain foods. For example, Mary ate salmon, pineapple, and oranges frequently in New York but rarely ate apples or cornbread and she did not drink tea regularly anymore. These illustrate a large separation between the two regions in terms of one’s diet.
While she ate differently in the cities, the culinary practices were considerably different as well. While traveling in New York one day, Mary passes by fields of grains that are all of different colors reminding her of a map of the United States. In the south, she alludes to how large plantations made it look like the same crop grew for miles. In letter four, she highlights three main differences in the home life between North Carolina and New York. She first wrote about how the house she stayed in utilized a cistern water system to harvest rainwater. This would then be cleaned and used in food preparation as well as cleaning dishes. Once she first learned about the system she was disgusted but grew to appreciate the ingenuity. She also discusses how she now gets a garden to tend to and she grows currants. Lastly she highlights the difference between living in a city versus living in the rural south. While in New York, she hears people walk around the streets selling cakes, fish, and ice which baffled her at first.
Mary’s letters allow us to peer into the past and learn the many differences between rural North Carolina and urban New York. While in 2018 we may believe that diets vary little from state to state, they clearly were drastically different in 1876 as Mary tried new foods and experienced a form of culture shock as she would often write about missing southern food. While she may have been from Fayetteville, the Chapel Hill food story was similar at the time allowing us to draw conclusions on what those who left the area were feeling.
McEachern, Mary McNeill. “Mary McNeill McEachern Letters, 1871-1876.” Received by Family, UNC Libraries, Apr. 2002, https://finding-aids.lib.unc.edu/05094/#folder_1#1.