“take A Handful Of Bugloffe…”


What did the early settlers find to eat and drink? What was their daily fare? How much did they depend upon their own garden plants grown from seeds and roots and bulbs and cuttings brought from England? How much upon skills learned in the Old Country and how much upon those learned from the Indians? How was it, really?

Facts are hard to come by. Nontruths have charm. Our lavish Thanksgivings have transformed what was originally set aside as a day for fasting and prayer. And our modern concept of the Puritans allows them to be brave but not bright, attractive, or good company. If one does not like a people, one seldom likes their food. Scholars have never considered the . New England Puritan diet tempting, even as a subject for research. And yet to find out what they ate may be one way to find out what they were really like.

Mention of food, its early scarcity and later plenty, is frequent in early accounts, but there are few details. For instance, when Governor William Bradford writes in his History of Plymouth Plantation that on one occasion the Pilgrims had only lobsters and water to offer new arrivals, we cannot be properly sympathetic until we realize that, as one colonist wrote of lobsters, “their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldom eaten.” Indian women dived for them off the rocks, and what the braves didn’t take for bait the women smoked and dried. (Clams were also rated low, and pigs were run upon the clam flats.) And as for water, it was considered a very risky drink, less dangerous in the New World than in the Old, but not to be compared to beer. Sad fare indeed to offer the newcomers.

On the other hand, if the Puritans disdained shellfish, they were suitably grateful for all other fish and for a plant called the “groundnut.” No less an authority than Governor Bradford, in a manuscript poem describing “The History of New England in Verse,” gets fish and groundnuts into the third line. Famine once we had (wanting corn and bread) / But other things God gave us in full store / As fish and groundnuts to supply our strait.

It is a pity that we have no exact description of which plant they meant by groundnut. John Josselyn, a contemporary chronicler who wrote two books about New England, lists a plant he calls the “earth-nut” which he says is “of diverse kinds, one bearing very beautiful flowers.” Again he refers to the “earth-nut” with a “princely flower.” This could be dwarf ginseng or aralia ( Panax trifolium ), a flowering herb that has an edible tuberous root with a pungent flavor. Or he may have meant another plant sometimes called groundnut, the wild bean, or Apios luberosa .

The Pilgrims were solaced also by corn that they found stored in baskets in Indian ground-cellars and immediately appropriated. Early settlers were eloquent about corn and its phenomenal yield. They learned from the Indians how to grow it, in hills with four plants to a hill and a manuring of dead fish. Francis Higginson, who arrived in Salem in 1629 with seven children, became lyrical about the “new Paradise of New England” before he died there after one year of fancying his poor health quite restored. He explains in his posthumously published book, New England’s Plantation , what “great gains some of our English Planters have had by our Indian Corne,” which he says they sowed with such increase that they sold their harvest to the Indians for beaver skins and made a great profit, “where you may see how God blesseth husbandry in this land. … There is not such great and beautiful eares of corne I suppose anywhere else to be found but in this Countrey, being also of various colours, as red, blew, yellow, etc., and of one Corne there springeth foure or five hundred.”

Roger Williams in his Key Into the Language of the Indians of New England , printed in London in 1643, saYs corn is called “Ewachimneash” and that “there be divers sorts of this corn and of the colours, yet all of it is cither boiled in milk or buttered, if the use of it were known and received in England (it is the opinion of some skillful in physic) it might save many lives, occasioned by the binding nature of English wheat, the Indian corne keeping the body in a constant moderate looseness.”

“It is light of digestion,” wrote John Josselyn, “and the English make a kind of Loblolly [thick gruel] of it to eat with Milk which they call Sampe; they beat it in a Morter and sift the flower out of it; the remainder they call Homminey, which they put into a Pot of two or three Gallons with Water and boyl it upon a gentle fire till it be like a Hasty Pudden; they put of this into Milk, and so eat it. Their bread also they make of the Homminey so boiled, and mix their Flower with it, cast it into a deep Bason in which they form the loaf, and then turn it out upon the Peel [baker’s shovel] and presently put it into the Oven before it spreads abroad; and the Flower makes excellent Puddens.”