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Pilgrim Cuisine Revisited

How do we know what the Pilgrims ate or how they cooked? With Thanksgiving a few days away, I’d like to offer readers my article on the work of research librarian James W. Baker which lead to a revolution in the way Pilgrim cuisine was presented at Plimoth Plantation, the renowned living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The museum’s Foodways program continued to evolve after this article was written in the 1990s, but this material describes fascinating background for the interpretation of 17th century Pilgrim cooking. Baker’s 2009 book Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday provides further detailed information.

Putting together an authentic 17th century English dinner for 150 people wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but Jim Baker was intrigued by the challenge. As research director at Plimoth Plantation, Baker was accustomed to extracting information, including recipes, from the museum’s extensive library. So when planning began for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of Mayflower II’s historic 1957 voyage from England to America, Baker enthusiastically volunteered to recreate a feast that would have been familiar to the original Mayflower’s English passengers. Baker never imagined, however, that this meal would lead to reinterpretation of American culinary history.

In preparing the menu, Baker consulted Madge Lorwin’s historical cookbook Dining with William Shakespeare. The researcher was surprised by the unusual and complex recipes that combined herbs, spices, vegetables and dried fruits, and utilized bread-thickened rather than flour-thickened sauces. Since Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, Baker reasoned that this type of cooking would have represented the native cuisine of the English colonists who first settled in New England. He was struck by the fact that it bore no resemblance to the then-current food presentation at Plimoth Plantation.

“There was a received body of knowledge that said Pilgrim food was simple, hearty, natural and not complicated,‟ said Baker. “When you think of colonial food, you think of corn bread, salt pork and a few vegetables.” As a historian, he had had no reason to contradict or even question this theory. “I had always thought the Pilgrims would have dropped the traditional English way of cooking,” he said. “Then I thought, well, did they?”

A critical part of Baker’s job was to determine the authenticity of every detail of the museum’s presentation, from hemlines to carpentry to regional European accents. The possibility that 17th experts – including himself – could have been completely mistaken in their interpretation of Pilgrim cuisine in the New World motivated him to search for culinary clues in European and American libraries and archives for nearly four years. His research was complicated by the obvious fact that cooking, unlike other forms of culture, is destroyed almost immediately after its creation. Early Plymouth Colony records Baker found offered extensive detail about treaties, boundaries, church laws and civil agreements, but virtually nothing on the subject of food. Food historian Karen Hess, who translated Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, noted “No other aspect of human endeavor has been so neglected as home cookery,” which she attributed to “the endless deprecation of the work of women.”

Baker discovered two English books written by John Josselyn during the 1660s, New England Rarities and Two Voyages to New England, that both documented a significant on-going relationship between the New England colonists and their English heritage. Baker was particularly excited by a brief reference to colonial settlers in another English book published in 1654 with the provocative title Johnson’s Wonder Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New England: “...and in their fests [sic] have not forgotten the English fashion of stirring up their appetite with a variety of cooking their food.” For Baker, this was verification that the Pilgrims had not abandoned their native culinary traditions.

Although English political history of this period is called Elizabethan, or Early Modern, cultural history often progresses at a slower rate, Baker explained. For this reason, cooking in the opening decades of the 17th century was typical of an earlier period. Medieval cuisine had evolved gradually over 800 years and use of certain ingredients could be traced back to the Roman occupation. This manner of cooking reached a peak of expression in the 15th and 16th centuries through culinary drama, such as baking live snakes and toads into dishes for the delight of dinner guests. The children’s song about “four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie” was based on fact, not fantasy, Baker said.

In the 17th century, the flamboyant excesses that highlighted Medieval cooking had died out; Late Medieval cuisine was characterized by moderate presentation and an abundance of herbs and species. A recipe of humble (intestine) pie in The Good Huswife’s Jewell, written in 1587 by Thomas Dawson, called for “halfe a handful of hearbes, following time, margerum, borage, persely and a little rosemarie and season the same, being chopped with pepper, closes and mace, and so close your pie and bake him.” A salad might typically include sage, mint, lettuce, violets, marigolds and spinach.

Spotting the increasing use of herbs and spices, some historians interpreted it as an attempt to disguise spoiled food. “Nonsense,” responded Baker. “The ability to preserve meat was as successful then as in later times. The great silliness of some early food historians was that if they didn’t like a flavor, they would assume it had some practical use, that there was some explanation for its use other than a desirable flavor. Spices and herbs were in fact just preferred tastes.”

A significant change in cuisine is often marked by the appearance of new cookbooks, which was the case with the Late Medieval period that preceded the Pilgrims departure for America. The sudden flurry of cookbook publications was not duplicated in cultural centers in Germany and France, which suggests the phenomenon, was English not European. And if Jim Baker was right, it was also American.

But how could the Pilgrims produce elaborate three-course meals in a primitive setting? The Pilgrims were yeomen, members of the middle-class, far more accustomed to buying necessities at a nearby town or village than foraging for them. “We now reject the idea that they came to America, stepped off the boat, and instantly became self-reliant frontiersmen,” says Baker. “During the early years they struggled but after they got things under control, they probably lived as much as they could as they had back home.” He pointed out this pattern is true of most immigrant groups and certainly characterized, for example, the Victorian English who colonized India and clung to the ways of their homeland.

The immigrating Pilgrims brought livestock and seeds to the new land, where similarities with England in soil and climate made it possible to grow such staples as beans, peas, and meslin. Since some four hundred European fishing vessels sailed across the Atlantic each year, it was not difficult to send for cheese, malt, ground flour, cloth and other goods.

Newly discovered trade routes made spices like nutmeg, ginger and saffron readily available. Even common sailors on the Mayflower carried a personal supply of spices, certainly indicating they must have been accessible to the more prosperous passengers. In reality, Baker says, the Pilgrims were no more isolated in Plymouth then they would have been in the eastern Fens of England.

By the time first and second generation Pilgrim women became household cooks, potatoes, celery, soy sauce and other previously unknown ingredients had found their way to North America and into housewives’ pots. The memory of “the English fashion of stirring up their appetite” was eventually lost as the Pilgrims, like other immigrants, embraced new ways and new times. By the end of the 18th century, the unique Late Medieval cuisine that Jim Baker theorizes was enjoyed by early New England Pilgrims had become extinct in both Europe and America. It is now found nowhere in the world, with one notable exception: Plimoth Plantation.

As a result of Baker’s research, the 17th century food program at Plimoth Plantation was transformed from an occasional demonstration to a daily activity in most of the twelve houses in the Pilgrim Village. For first person interpreters there, cooking means doing without measuring cups, stainless steel, electricity, refrigeration, salt shakers, or bagged sugar. But Plimoth Plantation cooks who have mastered the old art of making tansies and fruit tarts and roast beef say it beats microwaving by a mile. “I cook better on a fire than I do at home, and I like it better,” declared former interpreter Troy Creane.

New interpreters were trained to measure ingredients by sight and feel, and to cook on a hearth with 17th century implements and recipes. They had three weeks of classes and a dress rehearsal before they assume the name, background, family, “memory,” regional accent, and daily chores of actual colonists. In the village they cooked a midday meal, in addition to maintaining a cottage home and garden, and fielding countless questions from visitors on anything from sex to herbal tea to dentistry.

Approximately two hundred historic recipes have been tested and adapted to contemporary use. (Popular Late Medieval recipes like “chaldron of swan” or “lark‟s tongue stew” are understandably omitted from the Plantation’s menus.) Every morning before visitors arrive, a supervisor delivers ingredients and reviews cooking techniques with the interpreters. “Spices are what make the food unusual,” said Creane. “Today we don’t usually think of putting cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins and sugar in a meat pie.”

The familiar sight and good smell of food being prepared play a distinctive and effective role in the museum’s portrayal of Pilgrim life. As a visitor you might observe two women in long woolen skirts standing beside the communal outdoor bake oven, a dome-shaped hollowed mound of clay on a counter-high platform. They lean against it casually, chatting about everyday subjects obviously enjoying the afternoon sun as they wait for their bread to finish baking. If you ask how they know the bread is done, you may get the friendly reply, “Oh, I would judge that it be done by the odor. If it were a wet odor, it would be but cooking. If it smells dry and toasted, it must be done just proper, but if t’is a burned smell, then, of course, t’is too late.”

Chicken, and later cows, goats, and sheep were brought from England with the Pilgrims, but according to primary sources such as Woods New England Prospect and Morton’s New English Canaan, the Pilgrims found a wide variety of native wild fame and fish, including bear, moose, wolf, deer, fox, and 47 kinds of fish, and 41 kinds of fowl. Eagle was reportedly “an excellent meat, like mutton,” and eels were plentiful enough to fill a hogshead in a night. Although plentiful, not all types of shellfish were considered desirable. Records show that the inmates of a Pilgrim-era poorhouse lodged the complaint that they would not tolerate lobster more than three times a week.

The realism of Plimoth Plantation is especially impressive to people whose image of Pilgrims is limited to stereotypes derived from our modern Thanksgiving first observed in 1863. Museum staff are often frustrated by the dominating influence of a 19th century holiday on 17th century history. “Thanksgiving is all the Pilgrims are known for,” remarked Baker. “”They’re only real in November, otherwise, they don’t exist, like Santa Claus.”

References in William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation and a letter by Edward Winslow indicate the Pilgrims did hold a three-day secular feast to celebrate a successful fall harvest sometime between late September and early November of 1621. (The claim to the first colonial thanksgiving on Dec. 4, 1619, however, is made by Berkley Plantation in Virginia.) The only four adult women to survive the first New England winter probably organized that dinner for one hundred and forty people, including ninety Native Americans.

Although the food at the Pilgrim gathering was plentiful, it doubtless bore little resemblance to that served at our own Thanksgiving dinners. Mashed potatoes, celery sticks, celery stuffing, creamed onions, flour-thickened gravy, even coffee, were unknown in those times. Sugar was extremely scarce, so only a small amount scraped from a block was used for most dishes. Jellied cranberry sauce and sweet desserts would also have been missing form that historic meal.

The official creation of Thanksgiving Day seems to have been somewhat of a political ploy. Since 1769, Forefathers Day had been celebrated by New Englanders to commemorate the Pilgrims’ 1620 landing on Plymouth Rock. Later poems such as the Courtship of Myles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow idealized stalwart, hard-working Pilgrim men and women. In an attempt to focus public attention on traditional values and a common ancestry amidst the divisions of the Civil War, President Lincoln official established Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday in November, 1863. Peace, brotherhood, and gratitude for the gifts of the Creator have continued to be predominant themes of this beloved American holiday.

Although Thanksgiving is celebrated today with televised football games, lavish parades and foods that would undoubtedly startle the original Pilgrims, they would no doubt have recognized the shape and tantalizing smell of the centerpiece on countless American dinner tables, and said with relish, as we do, “Pass the turkie, please.”

Note: A paper on Jim Baker’s research was first presented at the Dublin Seminar at Sturbridge Village. He once appeared at a Smithsonian Conference on Great Chefs with Julia Childs and Craig.

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