October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
The Puritans were far from puritanical about their food. With them, cooking was a high art
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.”
Another local grain noticed by Josselyn he calls “Naked Oats, there called Silpee, an excellent grain used instead of Oat Meal. They dry it in an Oven, or in a Pan upon the Fire, then beat it small in a Morter.” With this, he says, they make one of the “Standing Dishes” of New England. (The other he mentions is pumpkin pie.) A “Pottle of Milk,” (the equivalent of two wine bottles in quantity) was brought to the boil, and then about a dozen spoonfuls of meal were added. “So boil it leasurely stirring of it every foot least it burn too; when it is almost boiled enough they hang the kettle up higher, and let it stew only, in short time it will thicken like a Custard; they season it with a little Sugar and Spice and so serve it to the Table in deep Basons … It exceedingly nourisheth and strengthens people weakened with long sickness. Sometimes they make a Water Gruel with it, and sometimes thicken their Flesh Broth either with this or Homminey if it be for the Servants.”
The grain Josselyn has described was probably Avena nuda , also grown in England and called pilcorn or peelcorn because the ripe grains drop from the husks. Pilcorn, according1 to a contemporary English herbal, was favored by Norfolk and Suffolk housewives because it could be used without the aid of a mill. The herbal scorns these housewives, who “delight not to have anything but from hand to mouth” since “while their pot doth seeth” they may “go to the barne and rub forth with their hands sufficient for that present time,” not providing for the morrow but willing to “let the next day bring with it.” What would this stern moralist have said of today’s readymixes? After corn, pumpkins and squashes were the other staples that the Pilgrims had from the Indians. And literally after , since these were the Indian’s chief food when the corn season was over. “Pompions” and “Isquontersquashes” they were called. John Josselyn gives the following recipe for stewed pumpkin:
“The Housewives’ manner is to slice them when ripe and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting liquor to them; and when it is stewed enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they dish, putting butter to it and a little vinegar (with some Spice, as Ginger, etc.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh. It provoketh Urin extremely and is very windy.”
Captain John Smith, who in 1614 sailed along the New England coast (and named it “New England”), planted his own little garden for “sallets [salads] on a rocky island on the coast of Maine. Hoping to establish a new colony here, he noted the profusion of berries and of cultivated “Indian gardens.” (He had previously carried the Virginia settlement through its first year by coaxing corn from the Indians.)
Strawberries were everywhere in plenty. “This berry,” says Roger Williams, “is the wonder of all the fruits growing naturally in those parts. It is of itself excellent, so that one of the chiefest doctors of England was wont to say, that God could have made, but God never did make, a better berry. In some parts where the natives have planted, I have many times seen as many as would fill a good ship within a few miles compass. The Indians bruise them in a mortar and mix them with meal and make a strawberry bread.” Later he adds that the English followed their example, and also “make a good wine both of their grapes and strawberries … in some places, as I have often tasted.”
We are fortunate to have a recipe for making strawberry wine from the private recipe book of a contemporary English nobleman, Sir Kenelm Digby. Digby was one of the fascinating characters of the seventeenth century, definitely its bright inconstant star, turning up almost everywhere we look, as a gentleman pirate, advisor to kings, refugee from changing political and religious climes, and inventor.
“Bruise the strawberries and put them into a Linnen-bag which hath been little used that so the Liquor may run through more easily. You hang in the bag at the bung into the vessel before you put in your Strawberries. The quantity of the fruit is left to your discretion for you will judge there to be enough of them when the colour of the wine is high enough. During the working, you leave the bung open. The working being over, you stop your vessel. Cherry wine is made after the same fashion. But it is a little more troublesome to break the Cherrystones.”
Sir Kenelm, obviously a gourmet, also provides a recipe for currant wine. “Take a pound of the best Currants, clean picked, and pour upon them in a deep straight-mouthed earthen vessel six pounds or pints of hot water, in which you have dissolved three spoonfuls of the purest and newest Aleyeast. Stop it very close till it ferment, then give such vent as is necessary and keep it warm for about three days, it will work and ferment. Taste it after two days to see if it be grown to your liking; as soon as you find it so, let it run through a strainer to leave behind all the exhausted currants and the yeast, and so bottle it up. It will be exceedingly quick and pleasant and is admirable good to cool the liver and cleanse the blood. It will be ready to drink in five or six days after it is bottled. And you may drink safely large draughts of it.”
Josselyn tells us that fruit trees “prosper abundantly,” and adds, “Syder is very plentiful in the Countrey, ordinarily sold for Ten shillings a Hogshead. At the Tap-houses in Boston I have had an Ale-quart spic’d and sweetened with Sugar for a groat [fourpence], but I shall insert a more delicate mixture of it. Take of Maligoraisins, stamp them and put milk to them, and put them in an Hippocras bag [a cloth strainer] and let it drain out of itself, put a quantity of this with a spoonful or two of Syrup of CloveGilliflowers into every bottle, when you bottle your Syder and your Planter will have a Liquor that exceeds … the Nectar of the Countrey.”
And what is a clove gillyflower? Josselyn explained carefully. Clove gillyflowers (pronounced jillyflowers, “July” being a corruption of “July”) were used to make a cordial and flavoring. They “thrive exceedingly in New England,” Josselyn said, “and are very large, the Collibuy or humming bird is much pleased with them. Our English dames make a syrup of them without fire, they steep them in Wine till it be of a deep colour, and then they put to it spirit of Vitriol, it will keep as long as the other.”
Josselyn also hailed the New England blueberry, or “billberry.” He finds that “they are very good to allay the burning heat of Feavers and hot Agues, either in Syrup or Conserve. … The Indians dry them in the Sun and sell them to the English by the Bushel], who make use of them instead of Currence [currants], putting of them into Puddens, both boyled and baked, and into Water Gruel.” The settlers “usually eat of them put into a bason, with Milk and sweetened a little more with Sugar and Spice, or for cold Stomachs, in Sack.”
Of richer concoctions made from fruits, Josselyn refers to the “Quinces, Cherries, Damsons,” which “set the dames a work. Marmalad and preserved Damsons is to be met with in every house.”
Salad greens, or “sallets,” would appear to have been a fairly regular accompaniment of seventeenth-century meals. We find reference to “OyIe of olives” in supplies sent or brought or requested. Many of the plants grown or collected in the wilds were for salads. Everyone appears to have been aware of the need for green stuffs in the diet—although allusions to the pots or waters in which “sallets” were cooked lead us to assume that a “sallet” was not necessarily a salad as we know it today.
Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was known to the New England colonists, and in this book, Burton attacks salads as “windy and not fit therefore to be eaten of all men raw, though qualified with oyl, but in broths, or otherwise.” Some, Burton says, “are of opinion that all raw herbs and sallets breed melancholy blood, except bugloss [a plant in the borage family] and lettice.”
When the senior John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote from “this strange lande, where we have mett many troubles and adversities,” to his “lovinge and dutiful sonne” John, Junior, in England, in March of 1631, he advised him, “Bring no provision with you … but meale and pease, and some otemeale and Sugar, fruit, figges and pepper, and good store of saltpeeter, and Conserve of redd roses. …” (And then, in spite of his advice of “no provision,” he goes on to recommend such little extras as calves’ skins, shoes, stockings, hats, sheepskins with the wool dyed red, woolen clothes of “sad” colors, millstones, shoemakers’ supplies, wine vinegar, pitch, suet or tallow, chalk, chalkline, compasses, linen, and birdlime.)
While conserve of red roses may sound charmingly frivolous to us today, it was one of the necessities for a rough and long voyage in a very small ship. Sir Kenelm Digby had a recipe for it, given to him by a Doctor Bacon, who had it from “a Roman Apothecary” (showing that it was a medicine, festive though it sounds).
Briefly, Dr. Bacon, or the Roman apothecary, clarified twelve pounds of the best sugar with whites of eggs and spring water, which, after boiling and skimming, came to about nine pounds of clarified sugar. Boiling this to a syrup, about half way in the process he began to beat his rose leaves in a mortar, “the rose leaves,” by which he means the petals, having been carefully picked and the “nails,” or places where they join the bloom, cut off beforehand. The juice of two lemons squeezed over them while they were beaten brought out their color. If the roses were allowed to stand after the beating they turned black, so they were put quickly into what was by now, hopefully, a “high Syrup.” After stirring them and letting them boil gently, skimming the while, for about a quarter of an hour, a drop upon a plate was supposed to show at this point that the syrup was “of due consistence.” Then it was all put into pots which were left open for ten or twelve days to get their tops candied and so naturally sealed. Paper covers were tied over them for good measure. “Dr. Bacon useth to make a pleasant Julep of this Conserve of Roses by putting a good spoonful of it into a large drinking glass or cup, upon which squeeze the juice of a Limon, and clip in unto it a little of the yellow rinds of the Limon; work these well together with the back of a spoon, putting water in little and little, til you have filled up the glass with Spring-water; so drink it. He sometimes passeth it through an Hypocras bag and then it is a beautiful and pleasant Liquor. … The whole,” Sir Kenelm observes, is “very tender and smoothing and easie to digest in the stomack without clogging it. …”
Obviously, conserve of roses was not a remedy to be run up at a minute’s notice. But all cooking in seventeenthcentury New England required what Sir Kenelm liked to call “discretion and experience.” It took place in and around the central chimney of what would be the largest room in the house, where, as likely as not, a great fourposted and handsomely curtained bed would stand in one corner. The wide hearth and deeply set fireplace under the huge open chimney would be, in itself, the kitchen. Even later, when there were separate rooms for eating and sleeping, the generous hearth with overhead cranes set into the center of the chimney, with its oven on one side at the back, constituted the whole cooking area. This is why we are mistaken in imagining roaring fires with great logs burning furiously, because the housewife, in order to cook, had to step into or lean into the fireplace.
And there she needed to have several fires going at the same time, at least three at different degrees of heat; one hotly flaming, one of glowing embers, and one of hot ashes with “coals” on top. With these and hooks on the cranes to hang pots at different heights above the heat, and the adjacent oven heated with hot coals before using, she would be able to carry out the most elaborate operations. Double boilers were improvised by putting hay in the water at the bottom of a large iron kettle so a smaller kettle could rest on the hay. A formidable array of utensils—reflecting ovens, spiders (frying pans on legs), spits for roasting meat, toasting forks, long-handled dippers, earthenware dishes, glass bottles, and copper kettles—equipped her to work minor miracles of cookery. The great beam stretching across the front of the fireplace, almost above her head, acquired a smoothly worn hollow where she rested one hand to balance herself while she stirred with the other. The inner side of this beam, close to the fire, could become charred, and constituted one of the commonest hazards of seventeenth-century cooking. The old books on housekeeping list many remedies for burns.
With everything cooking at once and in different ways, close watching was essential lest all those concoctions made with meal or flour or sugar should “fire too” or burn on. Sugar was used to an extent which would appall us today. It was plentiful, due to the nearness of Barbados, and Josselyn suspected it as the cause of people being pitiably “tooth-shaken.” The number of remedies for toothache and the desperate nature of some of them—such as rubbing the jaws with gunpowder—indicates that the pain must have been severe. This would also explain the prevalence in New England gardens of certain poisonous plants, some of which could be taken for a numbing effect.
In the still-room, usually a little room at one side of the kitchen, slightly lower to ensure coolness, the Puritan housewife needed skills even more complex than those required in her kitchen. Here she had virtually to understand and practice the rudiments of modern chemistry. In her still-room she made her cheeses, started her wines and sugar-fermented drinks, brewed beers, set dyes with mordants of her own concocting suited to each plant and the stuff it was to dye, and prepared all her plasters, salves, oils, and waters. In short, she ran a combination brewery, dairy, and apothecary’s shop. Fortunately for her, men of the seventeenth century often took an active interest in cookery as well as in the making of all kinds of drinks. In fact it is due chiefly to male chroniclers that we are now able to tell what was made and how.
For example, Sir Keiielm Digby describes, with gusto, an “excellent Way to make Metheglin.” Metheglin, a Welsh alcoholic drink made from fermenting honey, was apparently considered both medicinal and palatable. As recently as the iSgo’s metheglin was known in the United States, but it was flavored with sarsaparilla and charged with carbonic acid gas, which would certainly have startled and dismayed Sir Kenelm.
His seventeenth-century version was flavored as follows: “Take Bugloss, Borage, Hyssop, Organ, Sweet-Marjoram, French cowslip, Coltsfoot, Thyme, Burnet, Self-heal, Sanicle a little, Betony, Blew-buttons, Harts-tongue, Meads-sweet, Liverwort, Veriander two ounces, Bistort, Saint John’s wort, Liquorish, Two ounces of Carraways, two ounces of Yellow-saunders, Balm, Bugle, Half a pound of Ginger, and one ounce of Cloves, Agrimony, Tormintil-roots, Cumfrey, Fennel-roots, Clowns-all-heal, Maiden-hair, Wall-rew, Spleenwort, Sweetoak, Paul’s betony, Mouse-ear. …” For two hogsheads of metheglin you take two handfuls apiece of each of the above herbs, unless the quantity is already given, except for sanicle, of which, he says, “you need only half a handful.”
“Excellent White Metheglin” was concocted by a Mr. Pierce, who first boiled three hogsheads of the best water and then added four handfuls of sweetbrier leaves, the same of eyebright, two of rosemary, the same of sweet marjoram, and one of “broadthyme.” After a quarter of an hour’s boiling he strained out the herbs and let the water cool to blood-warm when he “put the honey to it,” about one part to four of water, and mixed it all well for at least an hour. To learn whether it was a strong enough mixture, that is to say, if it would bear up an egg so that “a Groat’s-breadth, or rather but a threepence, of the Eggshel must swim above the Liquor,” Mr. Pierce made a test with a whole dozen eggs to “make a medium of their several emergings.” The egg test passed, the concoction went back into the “Copper” to boil again and be skimmed. “Turn up an hour Glass and let it boil well a good hour.” Just at the end of the boiling, a pound of ginger was added, and the whole was allowed to cool. Then came the operation of pouring it from a height into a “pottle of New-ale-barm,” and when all the liquor was in and uniformly mixed with the barm, or yeast broth, it began to “work.” After more skimming it was put into two hogsheads to work further, and finally sealed. Three weeks after broaching, “which is best not done till a year be over after making,” Mr. Pierce flavored it with cinnamon and cloves, although he sometimes left out the cloves. In either case, “this Metheglin is a great Balsom and strengthener of the Viscera and is excellent in colds and consumptions.”
When in 1630 John Winthrop arrived in Salem Harbor he was feasted by John Endecott, the acting governor of the Salem colony, and was given “a good venison pasty and good beer.”
For the pasty, again Sir Kenelm provides a recipe, this one attributed to an unidentified authority, “My Lady of Newport.” “Line the dish with a thin crust of good pure paste but make it pretty thick upward toward the brim, that it may be there Pudding crust. Lay then the venison in a round piece upon the Paste in the dish that must not fill it up to touch the Pudding but lie at ease; put over the cover and let it over-reach upon the brim with some carved Pasty work to grace it, which must go up with a border like a lace growing a little way upwards upon the cover, which is a little arched up and hath a little hole in the top to pour into it unto the meat the strong wellseasoned broth that is made of the broken bones, and remaining lean flesh of the venison. Put a little pure Butter or Beef-suet to the Venison before you put the cover on unless it be exceeding fat. This must bake five or six hours or more as an ordinary Pasty. An hour or an hour and a half before you take it out to serve it up, open the Oven and draw out the dish far enough to pour in at the little hole of the cover the strong decoction of the broken bones and flesh. Then set it in again, to make an end of his baking and soaking.”
The beer served to Winthrop by Endecott must have been as like to the beer of Old England as possible, made with malt and yeast brought from the homeland. The hops could have been native, as we have read how early voyagers up Maine rivers rejoiced at the quantity of hop vines covering the banks on either side. Malt we know John Winthrop had brought with him, and we may presume that Mr. Endecott had done so also. And although “beer” was made of almost anything handy in New England, malt was preferred. Before it was grown in America, one of Winthrop’s young fellow voyagers wrote a desperate letter to his father asking for a hogshead of malt, as they were in such straits as to be drinking nothing but water.
Of yeast, we have no direct accounts. It would seem to have been one of their essential commodities, a special concern of every housewife. But of what they did to keep it “alive” on shipboard or to make it always new and fresh after they landed, there is no record.
Josselyn tells us that in Maine beer was made of molasses, which would seem to have put it rather on the rum side, and chips of sassafras root, a little wormwood, water, and bran. He does not mention yeast; perhaps the sugar in the molasses furnished the fermentation. In any case, the colonists were always concocting drinks of most unlikely materials, doubtless because the water was considered dangerous.
Back home in England, water was thought to be most unwholesome unless it came from very special sources. When a sixteenth-century doctor wrote that moats should be kept moving for the health of the household, he was not necessarily referring to moats around great castles but to those dug for drainage and convenience about many wellplanned small English houses. Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy , cautions against using the water from these moats even for cooking and denies that, as some have said, it makes the best beer, although he concedes it may certainly make the strongest. So we can understand the lyric celebration by Captain John Smith of the springs that bubbled up all over the New England countryside. Another contemporary recommended the waters of New England as being better than bad beer, though of course not to be preferred to good beer. Says he, “those that drinks it [water] be as healthful, fresh and lustie, as they that drink beere.”
By the 1640’s the settlers were not doing badly. Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England lists gardens and orchards and “fair Houses” and good eating as among visible blessings: “you have heard in what extreme penury these people were at first … when ships came in it grieved some Master to see the urging of them by people of good rank and quality to sell bread unto them. But now take notice how the right hand of the most high hath altered all … and now good white and wheaten bread is no dainty, but every ordinary man hath his choice, if gay clothing and a liquorish tooth after sack, sugar and plums lick not away his bread too fast … there are not many towns in the country but the poorest person in them hath a house and land of his own and bread of his own growing, if not some cattel; besides, flesh is now no rare food, beef, pork, and mutton being frequent in many houses, so that this poor wilderness hath not only equalized England in food, but goes beyond it in some places for the great plenty of wine and sugar, which is ordinarily spent, apples, pears and quince tarts instead of their former Pumpkin Pies, Poultry they have plenty … and in their feasts have not forgotten the English fashion of stirring up their appetites with variety of cooking their food …”
What the variety of cooking was we can judge best by their own accounts, and most especially—to end with a flourish—by John Josselyn’s splendid way of cooking eels:
“The Eal,” he begins, “is of two sorts, salt water EaIs and fresh water EaIs; these again are distinguished into yellow bellied EaIs and silver bellied EaIs; I never eat better EaIs in no part of the world that I have been in, than are here. They that have no mind or leasure to take them may buy of an Indian half a dozen silver bellied EaIs as big as those we usually give 8 pence or twelve pence a piece for at London for three pence or a groat. There are several ways of cooking them, some love them roasted, others baked, and many will have them fryed; but they please my palate best when they are boiled; a common way is to boil them in half water, half wine with the bottom of a manchet, a fagot of parsley, and a little winter savory; when they are boiled they take them out and break the bread in the broth, and put to it three or four spoonfuls of yeast, and a piece of sweet butter; this they pour to their EaIs laid upon sippets [small bits of white bread] and so serve it up. I fancie my way better which is this: After the EaIs are fley’d and washed I fill their bellies with nutmeg grated and cloves a little bruised and sow them up with a needle and thread; then I stick a clove here and there in their sides about an inch asunder, making holes for them with a bodkin; this done I wind them up in a wreath and put them in a kettle with half water and half wine vinegar, so much as will rise four fingers about the EaIs; in midst of the EaIs I put the bottom of a penny white loaf and a fagot of these herbs following, Parsley one handful, a little sweet Marjoram, Penni-royal, and Savory, a branch of Rosemary; bind them up with a thread and when they are boiled enough take out the EaIs and pull out the thred that their bellies were sewed up with, turn out the Nutmeg and Cloves; put the EaIs in a dish with butter and vinegar upon a chafing dish with coals to keep warm, then put into the broth three or four spoonfuls of good Ale-yeast with the juice of half a Lemon; but before you put in your Yeast beat it in a porringer with some of the broth, then break the crust of bread very small and mingle it well together with the broth, pour it into a deep dish and garnish it with the other half of the Lemon, and so serve them up to the Table in two dishes.”
A recipe to end all recipes, or, as the New England settlers would have said, a receipt to end all receipts.