November 27, 2014

Pilgrim food and etiquette

When we think of the traditional Thanksgiving menu, what comes to mind is turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

This has its origins in the Victorian era, however; the the spread on the table of the Pilgrims in the autumn of 1621 was quite different.

So what did the Pilgrims and natives actually eat at that first Thanksgiving? And how did they eat it?

Most Europeans in the 17th century didn't eat potatoes; they were thought to be poisonous and fit only for pigs. Meals in general were far more meat-heavy with few vegetables; 17th century people worked physically much harder than people do today, and they needed all that extra protein and fat.

So at this three-day fall harvest feast, those who had braved the Atlantic and the first harsh few months in a strange and foreign land would have likely had fowl (probably turkey and duck), lobster, eel, nuts, turnips, corn, and berries. The Wampanoag natives who participated (we don't know if they were actually invited or whether they crashed and the English were too polite/scared to tell them to shove off) may have contributed by bringing deer meat.

For 17th century Europeans, the main meal of the day was eaten at about noon, at the time we today consider to be lunch. The lighter evening meal, supper, would usually consist of leftovers from noontime "dinner."

The English custom of set mealtimes must have seemed strange to their Wampanoag native guests, who simply ate when they were hungry.

They didn't yet have porcelain or even pewter plates at this time. Instead they had wooden plates-and-bowls-in-one called trenchers, and children often shared their trenchers with siblings. No forks either-- just spoons and knives. Instead of placing napkins on laps (which I personally feel is stupid and pointless), the napkin was draped over the left shoulder, convenient for wiping hands.

A trencher, c. 1600

There were no courses; everything would have been on the table at the same time. The feasters would not have been expected to sample everything, but would only eat the foods that were close to them.

Everyone would have been seated according to class, with the best foods next to the most important people. Children would have served the adults, and likely would not have been seated at the table with them, but would stand behind the adults, waiting for food to be passed to them.

Some things haven't changed much though; here is a little poem by Tudor-era poet Francis Segar from Schoole of Vertue (1582):

Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library
“For rudeness is thy pottage to sup,
Or speake to any, his head in his cup
Thy knife be sharpe to cut fayre thy meat:
Thy mouth not be full when thou dost eat
Pyke not they teethe at the table syttnge,
Nor use at thy meat Overmuch spytynge;
This rudeness of youth is to be abhorred;
Thy self mannerly Behave at the borde.”


Don't talk with your head bent over your cup-- look up before speaking.
Don't hack your food, and swallow what's in your mouth before taking another bite.
Don't spit too much or pick your teeth at the table.

Board is an old word that refers to a narrow table off which one eats, and it's still in use today in the expression "room and board"-- i.e., room and meals.

Whatever you'll have on your table today, and whomever you'll be sharing it with, have a happy Thanksgiving!

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