As always, I had a grand ol’ time this past weekend during
the annual Essex County (NJ) Holiday Historic House Tours.
I was busy both days chatting with visitors in the kitchen
of The Israel Crane House. I enjoy this event every year,
and once again, it was great fun. HUZZAH!
However, before I continue, I need to step back a few weeks
and report on the most recent hearth cooking class at Crane’s.
Held in mid-November when our national Thanksgiving holiday
was just around the corner, this particular session was designed
to offer participants opportunities to “Cook Like a Pilgrim.” And
so, we replicated several dishes that might’ve been prepared,
cooked, and eaten by those early Plymouth settlers and their
neighbors, the Wampanoags, in the autumn of 1621.
Now, I won’t delve too deeply here into the details of that
so-called “first thanksgiving feast.” I’ve written several times
about the myths behind the annual holiday, including this post.
In addition, you can check out the website for Plimoth Plantation,
as well as the various blogs associated with it. Suffice it to say
that it was far different from the modern incantation. The very
foundations of the holiday have been misconstrued, as it was
not a day of thanksgiving, particularly in a religious sense,
for if it had been, the settlers would’ve not only spent the day
listening to sermons in the meeting house (church), but they
also would’ve been fasting, not feasting. However, it was
indeed a harvest celebration, just like all the others that’d
been traditionally held in the colonist’s native England. It
wasn’t necessarily an annual event, either, in the homeland
or the new colony (there was none in 1622), even after
a spectacularly bountiful harvest.
But never mind all that. This was a hearth cooking class! What
about the food? What was offered at the long-ago colonial feast?
What was available? What did the colonists and the Native Peoples
eat? What specific dishes were most likely cooked and shared?
Heck, more importantly, what did WE cook during our recent
“Cook Like a Pilgrim” class?!
To create a viable menu for our meal, I began by studying
various sources, including books, websites, and the like.
I also relied on my knowledge of basic food history. All
of this enabled me to select period-appropriate foods and
dishes. Fortunately, there’s also an eye-witness account.
It’s a letter that Mayflower passenger and Plymouth colonist
Edward Winslow wrote to a friend back in England shortly
after the event, wherein he described the proceedings:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor
sent four men on fowling, that so we might
after a special manner rejoice together after
we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They
four in one day killed as much fowl as, with
a little help beside, served the company
almost a week. At which time, amongst
other recreations, we exercised our arms,
many of the Indians coming amongst us,
and among the rest their greatest king
Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom
for three days we entertained and feasted,
and they went out and killed five deer,
which they brought to the plantation and
bestowed on our governor, and upon the
captain and others. And although it be
not always so plentiful as it was at this
time with us, yet by the goodness of God,
we are so far from want that we often wish
you partakers of our plenty.
So we know fowl (most likely ducks, geese, and other types
of waterfowl), and a good supply of venison were on the table.
Additional research revealed what else might’ve been offered
during the harvest meal. It also allowed me to safely say what
was probably NOT eaten. Thus, there were no mashed potatoes or
pumpkin pie nor any cranberries or 30-pound turkeys.
Thus, our “Cook Like a Pilgrim” menu was set. It would consist
of venison, duck, mussels, hasty pudding, a salad, and “pompion.”
I soon found receipts (recipes) for all these dishes in either my
own facsimiles of 17th century cookbooks or in others online.
I must say that, at first, it was a daunting prospect, this
searching in an unfamiliar century, but soon I was happily
discovering a host of different options. And so, with a bit
of tweaking,* we followed the instructions of the following:
Gervase Markham’s To roast venison, from his The English
Finding a specialty meat store that sells venison, effortless;
dealing with the resulting sticker shock, priceless!
To Stew a Mallard, from The Good Housewife’s Jewel, by
Thomas Dawson (1596)
A receipt Dawson stole, er, “borrowed” from The good Huswifes
Handmaide for the Kitchin, which was published in 1594. Yep,
plagiarism was rampant even back then! And we used a duck,
as mallards are WAY too expensive. Heck, even our Miss Duck
wasn’t cheap! Which was surprising. I imagine it’s because
few people eat it nowadays. Most stores had a limited supply,
and the birds were always frozen. Boy, I tell ya, at one point
when I was in the midst of the meat section of one Brooklyn
Big Name Store, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I was
surrounded by vast quantities of different versions of chicken
(fresh, frozen, whole, legs only, wings only, boneless, skinless,
tenders, fryers, bites, etc.) and smaller sections of beef and
pork varieties, but there were only three $35 frozen ducks
in one little cubicle of a freezer case. Clearly, we Americans
have a VERY limited meat palate. Sad. But I digress…
John Murrell’s To frye Mussels, Perywinckels, or Oysters,
to serue [serve] with a Ducke, or single by themselves,
from his A New Booke of Cookerie: London Cookerie (1615)
I wanted to include seafood of some kind on our menu, as
it would’ve most definitely been readily available. It was
too late in the season for some fish, but not for mussels,
so I choose them. I also figured they’d have been greatly
appreciated by the Native Peoples at the 1621 feast. After
all, you’ve heard the advice to “serve what your guests
will like,” yes?! The best part of this particular receipt
is that it states “to serue [serve] with a Ducke.” Perfect!
I just loved how everything fit together so well! HUZZAH!
Another way to make a hasty Pudding, courtesy
of The Queen-like Closet (1672), by Hannah Wolley
This is the quintessential British dish. It would’ve been easy
to make and would’ve fed a boat-load of people. Although it
was typically made with flour, Indian (aka corn) meal would’ve
been used in 1621. Flour would’ve been in limited supply, if
it was available at all. Plus, early wheat crops in the colony
did poorly, so corn meal was a handy, and logical, substitution.
And thanks to the Wampanoag’s assistance, it WAS readily
available. HUZZAH, again!
Markham’s To make an excellent compound boild Sallat
(from the same book as mentioned above)
The best part of this dish is…YES! They ate sallats (salads)!
And finally, we made use of several receipts for “pompion.”
Which to an early settler meant any type of squash, including
pumpkins and ‘vine apples (aka acorn squash). Among others,
we used one from Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (1685)
and another from New-Englands Rarities Discovered, by John
Josselyn (1672). It was quite fascinating to see the number
of pumpkin/squash receipts increase exponentially in cookbooks
from the early to the mid-1600s.
Overall, I think it was a successful class. It provided everyone
with opportunities to enjoy a meal composed of assorted and
non-traditional Thanksgiving (so-called) dishes. Of course,
I’d like to offer this class and its menu every fall. That
remains to be seen, I guess, but…well, here’s hoping!
NOTE: I sincerely apologize for the appalling lack of photos.
There just wasn’t time or opportunities to take any. I’m even
Ahh, well…so it goes…dagnabit
*By “tweaking,” I mean taking into account what the early
settlers had access to, whether it grew in their own fields
and/or gardens and what they likely brought with them
on the initial voyage. I also wanted to be reasonable,
but not punitive, all while staying true to my concerns,
goals, and overall drive for historical accuracy. So, for
instance, one receipt calls for dates. Yeah, no to that.
No way. But many, in fact most, of them make use
of various spices. I said, “Yes” to those, and I did so
for a couple of reasons: one, they were a normal part
of the cooking process during this time period (the early
1600s); and two, they were easily stored, whether while
being transported or when in a home.