Thanksgiving Notes


A few years ago, David Hackett Fisher wrote a very entertaining book, “Albion’s Seed”, outlining the four earliest cultures that came to the east coast of North America from the British Isles.

For your amusement, I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about New England food ways.

—————————————————————-

….New England’s food ways also owed much to the Christian asceticism of its founders, who were among the earliest Americans to associate plain cooking with piety, and vegetables with virtue.  “Let no man make a jest at pumpkins,” wrote Edward Johnson, “for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people.”

The private diaries of the Puritans commonly expressed a settled hostility to sensual indulgence at table.  John Winthrop, after a trip to London, scourged himself for overeating:

I grew drowsy and dull in every good duty; it made me
marvel at myself when I remembered my former alacrity;
I prayed and I wept, yet still I grew more discouraged.
God being merciful unto me, hereby to revive me, at
length I fell to prayer and fasting, pleased God that
hereby I recovered life and comfort, and then I found
plainly that not keeping a strict watch over my appetite,
but feeding more liberally than was meet…the flesh
waxed wanton, and would no longer wear the yoke, but
began to grow jolly and slothful….

…in aesthetic terms, New England’s cuisine was extraordinarily impoverished, particularly by contrast with the cornucopia of culinary riches in the region.  The coastal waters of New England teemed with mussels, oysters, lobsters and clams.  The rivers were choked with salmon and shad.  Wild fowl flourished in abundance.  Native delicacies such as glasswort sprouted along the seashore and fiddleheads carpeted the woodlands.

The Puritans showed little interest in these delights except when driven by hunger to consume them.  Shellfish was regarded with grave suspicion.  Shad roe, a gourmet’s delight, was used as fertilizer.  In the first year, John Winthrop complained when he was compelled to eat oysters and wild duck instead of the staples of old England.  “My dear wife,” he wrote, “we are here in a paradise, though we have not beef and mutton.”

The East Anglian taste for baking became an important part of culinary customs in New England, and leavened the general austerity of its regional diet.  Harriet Beecher Stowe remembered that the “old brick oven was a true Puritan
institution, and backed up the devotional habits of good housewives, by the capital care which he took of whatever was committed to his capacious bosom.”  These brick ovens were among the first structures built in Massachusetts.  Housewives too poor to own them used baking kettles and primitive reflector ovens.

New England baking took many forms.  The ritual Thanksgiving dinner came mainly from the oven — baked turkey, baked squash, baked beans, baked bread and baked pies in vast profusion.  The pie, in particular, became a Yankee folk art…..

The austerity of New England’s food ways was softened by its abundance of baked goods.  Even so, this culture made a virtue of sensual restraint.  For a very long time it preserved a spirit of self denial which was appropriate to a region that Samuel Adams described as “Christian Sparta.”  Even in the nineteenth century, the austerity of New England food ways appeared in the image of Brother
Jonathan
who stares out at us from his earliest photographs with gaunt body, sallow skin, hollow cheeks, burning eyes and shrunken mouth.  To his distrusting cousins, the stereotypical Yankee had a lean and hungry look.

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4 Responses to Thanksgiving Notes

  1. kitchenmudge says:

    Matthew Leslie said…

    “…and primitive reflector ovens.” It seems that the Puritans had a bit’o’ the Green in them. Any idea how the managed a reflective surface? I have to wonder if their mistrust of shellfish might have come from some bad old world experiences. Some mornings I think I look like Brother Jonathan.

    Originally Posted November 25, 2010 10:29 AM

  2. kitchenmudge says:

    Tom Lash said…

    Sounds like there was a class structure based on gender in the Puritan society and the ability to own the biggest oven. They must have been jealous of Brother Matt’s ability to provide the bigger oven.

    Originally Posted November 25, 2010 11:25 AM

  3. kitchenmudge says:

    Mudge said…

    Some quick Googling tells me that reflector ovens date at least from the late 18th century. I imagine, but don’t know, that tin or nickel could be used. Both fairly cheap, shiny metals that could be plated onto something stronger.

    Originally Posted November 25, 2010 12:22 PM

  4. kitchenmudge says:

    RON RODARTE said…

    These Puritan outcasts from England could not bear to enjoy their own lives to such a degree that the English felt them better gone to the wilderness America. From the history lesson provided it is obvious that the Puritans were starving in a land of plenty that the local natives were “obliged” to help. With an incredible media infrastructure potential, ever-larger leaps of information from science and technology, is it the presence of the Puritan in the American psyche that makes the lessened demand of food for thought, learned discussion, basic intelligence – so much as a Puritan “hostility” to intelligence as an indulgence in times as these? If so, the Puritan “ethic” is somewhat of a potent social poison. If the Puritan “ethic” is so imbued on the American psyche, how is consumerism even tolerated in this country? As with the construction of a Democratic domestic policy and an Imperialist foreign policy at present in our American political scene, we are both politically and socially divided in the goals and interests. Thanks for your work on the Buy-Nothing-Day activities, Tom. That is one tough nut for me to even begin to crack. I hope to be a lot more conscious of my impact from purchasing, and by renewing items into new uses rather than continue to support the corporate reality that imposes on our human reality.

    Originally Posted November 25, 2010 12:40 PM

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