Food Facts & Lore

Dinner in New England, 17th Century Style

In England and much of Europe, many landowners were practiced trappers and hunters. Those who did not own land lived on vegetables, grain, eggs and milk. The wealthy considered meat to be the core of a wholesome diet. What both classes had in common, however, was their love of beer. It was the family beverage of choice as water was considered unhealthy, and rightly so at the time, especially in urban areas.

Both had something else in common: they were not well versed in the art of cultivating large parcels of land for sustenance. This is a skill the well-to-do and common folks had to learn once the set foot in their New England. So here you have two groups of people from the same culture, and yet with very different dietary experiences, now learning to feed themselves on equal terms, or shall we say common grounds.

Water was possibly one of the first cultural shifts they had to contend with. While some of the early settlers knew how to produce beer, they could not accomplish this on a wide scale at first. In England, even children drank beer at mealtime. In America, they had to fill their cups with water. It is said that letters from settlers to family in Europe report noticeable health benefits in children who were now consuming more water.

It could take up to a full year for supplies from Europe, such as spices, sugar, butter and farm animals, to be delivered to the colonies. A letter listing required supplies would first have to be shipped across one way, delivered to the proper authorities, supplies rounded up and passage back secured.

Colonists relied on preservation methods to extend the life of some of their food supplies. Salting and drying were commonly used. With no landlords, the land was open to all for hunting and trapping at will. They also took advantage of the fruits of sea, lakes and rivers, though many had to learn to fish. But with no established markets as supply hubs, careful portioning and preservation were at the forefront of meal planning. Colonists were not so much concerned with the proverbial, “What’s for dinner?” as with, “What will we eat this coming winter?”

What about growing their own food? They learned much from the Native People and over time produced a surprisingly wide variety of foods, including barley (at last allowing them to produce a small quantity of beer), beans, wheat, oats and corn. They also grew carrots, turnips, pumpkins, peas, onions and even spinach and parsley. Onions and spinach were boiled and served with sugar, vinegar, currants and butter. These accompanied the various meats available to the colonies such as venison, wild turkey and beaver.

And what of dessert? We owe our love of a good homemade American pie to the hard labor and homesteading skills of our forefathers. As Thanksgiving comes to mind, we imagine their own relationship to a well garnished table and a good dessert to conclude a meal in the most satisfactory fashion. Pumpkins were not turned into pies. Instead, they were diced, stewed, seasoned with cinnamon or ginger in a buttery sauce and served as a small tart. Most satisfying indeed.