What’s Cooking at Plimoth Plantation

New England was home to the original Thanksgiving Day feast. That first celebration after the harvest of 1621 probably wasn’t about turkey, Aunt Sadie’s sweet potatoes, or time-honored recipes like creamed peas with onions, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. So, I wondered as I drove to Plimoth Plantation, just what kind of cooking was done in early seventeenth-century Massachusetts? The aroma of frying onions drifting out of one of the houses partly answered my question and whetted my appetite for what lay ahead.

The diet of the English, who settled in Plimoth, tells us a lot about them, and “the study of foodways goes far beyond the finished dish,” said Kathleen Curtin, Plimoth Plantation Food Historian. “Foodways includes all aspects of food in people’s lives; how they think about it, how they get it, how they distribute, preserve, prepare, and consume food.”
She went on to explain that the acquisition and use of foodstuffs was so central to life that it determined basic daily activity during this period.

Thirteen Moons

Kathleen took me to an exhibition called Thirteen Moons, which is focused on the ebb and flow of foods that were available to both the colonists and the Wampanoags. Today’s cook can use almost any type of food at any time of year, but in 1628, the seasonal cycle determined what could be brought to the hearth at any given time.

Fall was the fat time of year. The harvest was in, so the cook could offer more variety than at any other time. The huge influx of migratory waterfowl, the abundance of mussels, lobsters, herring, and other creatures of the sea, and the store of native corn and other crops gave her many choices. Autumn was livestock slaughtering time for the goats, poultry, and swine that had been imported from England. The storehouses and lofts were full of hams, sausage, bacon, and salt-cured meats in anticipation of the severe New England winter. Dried grains and other crops had been taken in along with pumpkins, onions, winter squashes, nuts, and beans. Some garden vegetables like beets, certain greens, and carrots stayed in the ground until it was frozen hard.

Bread and Puddings

Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Manager, met us in her historical persona of Elizabeth Warren. She showed us the communal bake oven, which could handle five to six dozen loaves at a time. Most bread was made of Indian corn, which was readily available. The palm-sized loaves looked hearty and appetizing, but were decidedly hard and coarse when I tried them. Wheat flour, which made better bread, had to be imported, so it was scarce, expensive, and not used very often.

I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that writings from the period show that the early settlers had a strong partiality for puddings. Corn pudding offered far more variety than bread. The cook could add sugar or broth to make it either sweet or savory. She could make a pudding with meat or vegetables, or serve it plain. She could boil it in a pudding bag or fry it with hog casings. When I was there, “Priscilla Alden” was setting out a savory pudding she had just made. The golden concoction smelled remarkably like risotto.

Meat and Fish

Pilgrim housewives had as many different ways to cook meat as we do today. They often boiled up hearty one-pot meals, and they also roasted things like duck and other waterfowl. They made venison pastries which somewhat resemble pastry turnovers that we might bake today. Priscilla Alden told us that swan was one of her favorites. In England, both swan and venison was the King’s meat and you could be fined for serving it, but here it was free for the taking. Fish was boiled, fried, or roasted.

“One of the things people don’t get about the seventeenth-century cook is the refined sense of taste and the whole range of flavors that come from sauces like those that involve vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, and dried fruit,” Ms. Curtin commented. These very flavorful sauces are derived from medieval times.

A Balanced Diet

There was a sense that foods grown naturally in England were the foods that were best for every Englishman, and the doctoring of humors offered a defining way for people to think about foods in general. Bread and meat accompanied by beer were the staple items in the colonists’ diet and almost no meal was served without them. Salads and vegetables were not considered as important, and neither sweet nor white potatoes could be found here at this time. The concept of dessert existed for the privileged classes of Europe and England, but here sweet and savory foods were generally served together. Fruits, either dried or fresh, when in season offered a bit of variety. Beach plums, wild cherries, grapes, blueberries, and other native fruits were certainly used. One of the first fruit trees to be imported was the apple, but it is not known how early it appeared.

An Austere Setting

We stepped into the home of Governor Bradford and sat down by the fire. Austere is a good word to describe the setting in the Plimoth of 1628. The large room had a packed earth floor and the walls were covered with a whitewashed clay and straw daub. There was a ceiling of rafters, which supported the loft storage space above us. The shutters were closed because no glass had yet been imported. Only oiled paper was in the frames. Light came from the hearth and a cotton wick pottery oil lamp. A spitted duck was roasting over the open fire and Priscilla was scraping from a cone into a pudding of Indian corn. Everybody in the room was dressed in layers and seemed not to mind the cold and dark.

When asked about heating his home, the Governor responded, “We live in the wilderness with thousands and thousands of trees. I worry not about it.”

A little more than 375 years have passed, and the severity of life at Plimoth Colony is difficult for twenty-first century visitors to conceive. This was a time and place where abundance was greeted as a great gift, yet a poor harvest could mean that not everybody would survive. These settlers came to New England to practice their religious beliefs freely, so their cycles of annual spring fast days and autumn Thanksgivings were spiritual in nature. Today we offer praise and thanksgiving in a more comfortable way, but as we sit around the family table we should consider, at least momentarily, that without the original Plimoth settlement, our lives would be very different.

Plimoth Plantation is an hour south of Boston in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Exit 4, Route 3 South, and 20 minutes north of Cape Cod. Plimoth Plantation, P.O. Box 1620, Plymouth, MA 02362, (508) 746-1622, www.plimoth.org.

Recipes are courtesy Kathleen Curtin and Sandy Oliver, Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie, Clarkson Potter, October 2005, $22.50. If purchased through the Plimoth Plantation bookstore, it can be personalized by Kathleen Curtin.

A Sweet Pudding of Indian Corn Serves 8

In seventeenth-century New England, native corn made its way into many dishes that had formerly been made with English “corns” like oats, wheat, and rice. Adaptations of English porridge and rice pudding recipes were particularly well suited to maize. This particular corn dish is sweetened with sugar and enriched with milk. An Englishman eating this dish in Plimoth in 1621 would have been reminded of a traditional English harvest food from England called frumenty (whole wheat berries with cream and spices.) While early English colonists would have mingled sweet and savory dishes, modern diners can add this recipe to the Thanksgiving dessert course.

Modern Version

6 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups coarse grits
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar (or more to taste)
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the salt and the coarse grits, stirring until the contents of the pot return to a boil. Turn the heat to low, and cook very gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Be sure to stir across the bottom of the pot to keep the grits from sticking. Remove from the heat and allow to stand about 30 minutes or until the grits are tender. Stir in the milk and sugar. Variation – To make a more deluxe version you can use cream in place of milk, add sweet spices to taste (cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves or ginger) and 1/2 cup of currants or raisins.

Source: New England Antiques Journal