What’s up with all the food in Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal?

sarah kemble knight

On Tuesday, October 3, 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight wrote in her journal that she and her guide were travelling towards New Haven “without observing any thing remarkable” between eight o’clock in the morning and lunch. Thus, her journal for this specific day and time frame includes no observations of her surroundings. She observes nothing likely to attract attention, conspicuous, or noticeable. So what is remarkable for Knight? Well, one answer to that question is food. During her journey through New England, Knight finds food noteworthy, as evidenced through her repeated remarks regarding the food she is served during her travels.

This blog post has a simple purpose: I will explore why Knight finds food, I dare say, the most remarkable aspect of her journey. I would like to posit this question in a context that Knight herself proposes. While traveling at night, Knight becomes frightened by the darkness that surrounds her. She writes that the surrounding darkness “was enough to startle a more Masculine courage.” In this quote, Knight has gendered her environment: those who possess more masculine courage would be startled by the darkness of the night, too, but not as quickly or to the extent that Knight was. Thus, I believe her comment here begs the question: what, for Knight, is ‘feminine courage’ and in what environment can ‘feminine courage’ be proven?’ Thus, below, I will discuss Knight’s seeming obsession with remarking on food in context of ‘feminine courage.’

On October 3, 1704, after arriving at the post’s second stage, Knight writes:

Here, having called for something to eat, ye woman bro’t in a Twisted thing like a cable, but something whiter; and laying it on the bord, tugg’d for life to bring it into a capacity to spread; wch having wth great pains accomplished, shee serv’d in a dish of Pork and Cabage, I suppose the remains of Dinner. The sause was of a deep Purple, wch I tho’t was boil’d in her dye Kettle; the bread was Indian, and every thing on the Table service Agreeable to these. I, being hungry, gott a little down; but my stomach was soon cloy’d, and what cabbage I swallowed serv’d me for a Cudd the whole day after.

In this passage, the bread is “Indian” and all of the other food on the table might as well be. Given Knight’s commentary on non-white peoples in her journal, especially Native Americans, we can assume that Knight labeling the woman’s prepared meal as being agreeable to Indian bread is not a compliment. So why would Knight included such a detailed description of the woman’s preparation of the meal as well as descriptions of the dishes served? I propose that Knight, being on a journey few women would have undertaken by themselves in 1704 for safety and social reasons, finds that she can show off her superior ‘feminine courage’ through hypercritical, detailed condemnations—and approvals, later— of food.

To support my argument, I will turn to a passage in which Knight reveals that her courage through language is setting/context specific. Knight hears an Indian name so “barbarous” that she refuses to repeat it in her writing:

But I could get no sleep, because of the Clamor of some the of Town tope-ers in next Room, Who were entred into a strong debate concerning ya Signifycation of the name of their Country, (viz.) Narraganset. One said it was named so by ya Indians, because there grew a Brier there, of a prodigious Highth and bigness, the like hardly ever known, called by the Indians Narragansett; And quotes an Indian of so Barberous a name for his Author, that I could not write it.

Here, Indian names are so barbarous that they cannot be repeated; by not repeating the name she overheard, she symbolically refuses to engage in the men’s conversation. Given the specific environments that she is in during her journey, as I have previously noted, it is no wonder that she chooses not to invoke her ‘feminine courage’ here, and consume the barbarous name of the Indian (by repeating it in her journal—the completion of consumption) like she does the ‘Indian’ food at the woman’s house.

AmericanStageCoach1795-300x208Thus, we can see why Knight finds food, among all of the events that must have taken place during her journey, to be remarkable. In a journey where she may have felt less-than courageous in moments (many of which are documented in her journal), she finds that she can prove her ‘feminine courage’ when she discusses, details, analyses and consumes the food she is served on her trip, as this process seems to create for Knight a mental and physical safe space. In these moments, she seems to feel a freedom in reconstructing the particulars of the meal, a feeling that she does not possess in other settings, such as when she is alone in an inn in the middle of Narragansett, with drunk men rambling below her.

In this blog post, I hoped to have shed new light on why Knight’s journal is, by and large, centered around food.

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