It’s no secret that while I am a terribly impatient cook in the modern day, I do love learning about the history of food, gizzards and all. There are a variety of historical cookbooks on my shelf which yield recipes both astonishingly modern (beer-battered apple fritters) and decidedly stuck in the past (calves’ chitterlings dressed “curiously”).
Historical cooking tends to come up often as a topic of conversation this time of year, as people prepare for Thanksgiving. While over time most of us have grappled with the knowledge that this holiday actually celebrates a dark time in our country’s history, it can be hard to break away from the desire to gather with family and indulge in nostalgia. Education here is key. I highly recommend visiting the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Museum when it is safe to do so, and to also do some reading on this history. This is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on these shores!
One quick way to get a good historical view of what the “First Thanksgiving” was all about is to go back to the source: Governor William Bradford’s account Of Plimoth Plantation:
“Others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye som̅er ther was no wante. And now begane to come in store of foule…And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion.”
Keep in mind that not only were the Pilgrims working with fairly meager supplies compared to what they were used to back in England, but they were also known for austerity. Extravagance in religion went hand in hand with extravagance in culture, and fashion, and food, and dissident religious groups like the separatists and Puritans wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the most useful cookbooks of the time was actually published as an elaborate insult. Published at the end of English Puritan rule in 1664, The court & kitchin of Elizabeth, commonly called Joan Cromwel, the wife of the late usurper : truly described and represented, and now made publick for general satisfaction (whew, that’s a mouthful) was designed to showcase that Cromwell and his ilk made their food just as bland and soulless as their religion and government. After several long essays on the horrors of the Cromwell administration, the book proceeds to expose Mrs. Cromwell’s favorite dishes, “most of them ordinary and vulgar . . . of which it will be no unpleasing Labour to the reader to peruse.” The Pilgrims likely would have been viewed in the same way.
Even these dishes, which were deliberately meant to sound horribly plain and dowdy, would have seemed downright exotic to the inhabitants of Plimoth Colony, who lacked many of the basic ingredients that the English could get from the Continent, such as fine wine, citrus fruit, and large quantities of spices. Depending on what ingredients were at hand, the group may have attempted to cobble together something similar to one of Mrs. Cromwell’s recipes, a boiled cod’s head with oyster stuffing and a wine-butter sauce.
“Cut off the Codds head beyond the Gills, that you may have part of the body with it, boyl it in water and salt, to which you may add half a pint of Vinegar, the head must be little more than covered before you put it into the Caldron, take a quart of the biggest cleanest Oysters, and a bunch of sweet herbs and Onions, and put them into the mouth of the head, and with a packthread bind the Jawes fast, you must be sure to pick it and wash it very clean, when it is boyled enough, take it up and set it a drying over a Chafing dish of Coals, then take the Oyster Liquor, four Anchoves, and a sliced Onion; put to them a wuarter of a pint of white Wine, and sweet butter, and melt them together, and pour it on the Cods head, still all or most of the Oysters upon the head, or where they will enter, and garnish it over with them, grate on a little Nutmeg, and send it smoking up, garnish the brims of the dish with Limon and sliced bay Leaves.”
To our modern palates, the food that the Wampanoag were cooking was often much tastier than that of the English, and if roasted eel isn’t your thing, Native cuisine from across the country is amazingly diverse and delicious! To get a closer look at the history of Native American food both before and after 1620, we are teaming up with Cary Library for their November book club, which will be hosted by chef Lois Ellen Frank.
Lois' website notes that “Lois has spent over 25 years documenting foods and life ways of Native American tribes from the Southwest. This lengthy immersion in Native American communities culminated in her book, Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations, featuring traditional and contemporary recipes.” Lois will be sharing her expertise on Native American cuisine and how food can be used for health and wellness. Register here to join us this Wednesday, November 18, at 7:00 PM.
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.