Eat like a pilgrim

The Pilgrims were people who had emigrated to North America in order to settle and make a new life. But the way they spoke, their customs, and what they ate, and thought was good for you, all came from their English or other European cultures.

What you need to know was that much of England, and other northern European countries, is above 50N, that is the latitude of Canada. The people who arrived in New York would have had to have come from Lisbon in Portugal to be at the same latitude as New York, for example. Then they all lived on the west coast of Europe, where the climate was like Seattle or Vancouver. There is no real equivalent in Europe to the east coast – as the Pilgrims were about to find out. In particular, winters in New England are colder, snowier and longer than in most of Europe, while summers in the Mid-Atlantic region are hotter and more humid.

They came over expecting to be able to carry on farming as they had always done, and brought seeds to do so – although it turned out that the seeds they brought were not suited to this different climate.

They were also used to living in densely-packed communities where the streams and rivers had been polluted for centuries, and were unfit to drink. To get over this, no one drank water. Instead they all (including children) drank very weak beer, for the alcohol in the beer killed the harmful bacteria in the water.

Most people in Europe worked on the land, as labourers. Most of what they grew was cereals such as wheat (from which they made bread) and barley (from which they made beer). The vegetables were root crops such as parsnip, swede and carrot.

Most people had a main meal called pottage. It was essentially a vegetable stew. They ate this in bowls with slabs of dark bread. Meat was a luxury, but added to the stew when it could be found.

So the main pilgrim meals were bread and stew, helped down with beer. Many people in Europe had market gardens, where they could grow fruits seasonally. So in the summer strawberries, blackberries and apples were plentiful. But the fruits were all finished by October. To keep food available all year, they had to preserve the fruits by drying them, or making jams (at that time boiled with honey rather than sugar). They salted meat, or smoked it, or dried it. They left root crops in the ground, for that was the best place to preserve them until they were needed. Nobody in Europe knew about things like potatoes and bananas, of course.

By the days of the Pilgrims, people in Europe had specialized. People who farmed were not the same people who fished. Many people also lived in towns and cities and were carpenters or blacksmiths who didn't farm or fish. So when they came over to New England, they were not all-rounders like the Native Americans, and that is why they found it difficult to survive. They were more like us, relying on going to the supermarket for our food, except in the days of the pilgrims they went to open-air markets.

The reason many settlers found themselves on the verge of starvation in their first years is because it took time to learn new techniques (which they were shown by the Native Americans).

But, as the years passed, they learned better how to fish. They began to grow corn. They also began to hunt and trap wild animals. So they, like the Native Americans, were able to add deer, rabbit, geese, duck, and turkey to their menus. In fact at this point their menu was probably better than they would have had back in Europe (and they used to write home to say so).

But they did have foods that the Native Americans did not, for they brought chickens, goats, sheep and cows with them. They were also used to trading, and so as they got organized, they were able to trade overseas for spices, oil and even wine.

One thing the Pilgrims had to get used to was that it was safe to drink the water. As they couldn't easily grow barley they couldn't brew beer. They also had to learn to make cornbread from ‘Indian’ corn.

They did not like, or drink milk. All of the milk collected was made into butter and cheese for the winter. They also added it to cereals to make porridge.

Just like us today, the Pilgrims usually ate three meals a day. Pilgrims ate a small cold breakfast of bread and cheese. The main meal was eaten in the middle of the day. It was called dinner. It might be a vegetable stew (pottage) or porridge together with chunks of bread and meat (they didn't carve it as we do now). In the evening, supper was a small meal made of leftovers.

The most famous meal from these days is Thanksgiving.
Today it might be like this:
Vegetable Soup
Garden Salad
Roast Native Turkey with Giblet Gravy
Carved Roast Beef
Cornbread Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes
Butternut Squash
Glazed Carrots
Cranberry Sauce
Baked Cornbread
Hot Crusty Rolls
Apple Cider
Apple Pie or Pumpkin Pie
Coffee & Tea

But the Pilgrims didn't know of potatoes or coffee, and couldn't get rolls, so you will have to rethink your menu if you want it to be authentic.

Remember, too, that Thanksgiving is based on Puritan Thanksgiving, a serious religious ceremony combining prayer and feasting. Note that most of the modern traditions of Thanksgiving are 19th century adaptations, so you might be better off going to the Victorian section to do a more modern kind of Thanksgiving menu.

Very little is known about the 1621 event in Plymouth that is the model for Thanksgiving.

Edward Winslow wrote this about that first occasion:
“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.”
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

So you might consider that a pile of turkey or chicken wings might be appropriate. But then, it's up to you!