A Puritan Looks at Thanksgiving


early sn2It’s deer hunting season here in Vermont.  A few days ago it snowed and the ground is still white, making tracking a little easier for hunters.  It’s a time of year that has a beauty of its own, a bridge between late fall and deep winter.  Yet, there’s something about the sere black-and-white dignity of the landscape that evokes in me a strange mixture of stillness and sorrow.


I’m not sure where that comes from; it’s a visceral, intuitive response.  It may be some sort of hardwired, biochemical foreboding about the coming of winter and mortality.  It might be my consciousness that, deep in the forest, beyond my range of vision, some hunter is visiting death on a healthy young buck.


Tomorrow my husband and I will travel to Massachusetts to celebrate Thanksgiving with our children.  I grew up loving Thanksgiving- the warmth and laughter of the gathered family, the familiar scents and flavors of the traditional foods, the cozy satisfactions of the hearth.  It was always a special day, partly because – unlike so many other holidays – it was simple and non-commercial.  But this year, especially as I think about the Puritans, I’m also aware of an undertone of sorrow.


English: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymo...

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like it or not, Thanksgiving is part of our national mythology; we learn the story of the first Thanksgiving when we’re very young and we’re reminded of it annually.  And Indians are an integral part of the story.  The truth is that, when we start looking at the history of Indians in this country, it doesn’t take long to get to a place of sorrow.


The so-called “First Thanksgiving,” celebrated in Plymouth Colony, was likely a three or four-day event marking a peace treaty between the colonists and the Wampanoags.  It was a native tradition to seal treaties by sharing food and playing games.


By the middle of the 1600’s, the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut colonies had established an annual autumn thanksgiving.  However, usually thanksgiving days were observed in response to specific events. Overall, there were many more days of fasting and humiliation than there were of thanksgiving.  During King Philip’s War, the Bay Colony forswore thanksgivings until the end of the hostilities.  On June 29 1676, they held a “day of solemn thanksgiving.”  The proclamation read:


“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present War with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgments he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions.”


The context for that thanksgiving wasn’t a celebration of the autumn harvest, but relief that the English had triumphed in the bloody and devastating war with the Wampanoag-Nipmuc-Pocasset-Narragansett alliance.  Despite all their posturing of meekness and humility, the fact was that the Puritans believed that God considered them a chosen people, and that it was God who had destroyed their “enemies.”


Just as the beauty of the snow-blanketed forest can conceal the life and death struggles of its occupants, the conventional memes of Thanksgiving can obscure the ugly history of the Puritan treatment of Native Americans. This is just as much a part of our national story as the famous First Thanksgiving.  If we are to begin to understand who we, as Americans, truly are, we must acknowledge and embrace its ugliness as well as its beauty.





Of Possets and Pompions: More from the Puritan Pantry

tableWhen I was writing Flight of the Sparrow, I spent many happy hours researching 17th century food customs. 

One of the earliest written recipes from New England is for “stewed pompion.”  (“Pompion was a term used for both pumpkins and squash.)  It was known as a “standing dish” because it was eaten with nearly every meal. (The recipe included a warning that this dish “provokes urine extremely and is very windy.”)

Slice ripe pompions, 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 any liquor to them; and when it is stewed enough, it will look like baked apples.  Dish, putting butter to it, and a little vinegar (with some spice, as ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh.

A modern version, developed by experts at Plimoth Plantation, is easier to follow in the 21st century:

pumpkinStewed Pompion

4 cups of boiled squash, roughly mashed

3 tablespoons of butter

2 to 3 teaspoons of cider vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons of ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon of salt

Heat all ingredients together over medium heat.  Adjust seasonings to taste and serve hot.

Another food that intrigued me was a “posset.”  A posset was a frothy hot drink made from curdled milk, eggs, ale or wine, and spices.  It was often used as a remedy for mild illness, such as a cold. Possets were served in posset pots, which usually had two handles and a spout. A well-made posset had three layers: the top was foam, or “grace;” the middle was a smooth spiced custard; and the bottom was the alcoholic liquid.  The grace and custard were eaten with a spoon and the “sack” or alcohol at the bottom was sucked through the spout.

Here’s a posset recipe from 1671, followed by two modern versions:

Take a pottle of cream, and boil in it a little whole cinnamon, and three or four flakes of mace.  To this proportion of cream put in 18 yolks of eggs, and 8 of the whites; a pint of sack; beat your eggs very well and then mingle them with your sack.  Put in 3/4 of a pound of sugar into the wine and eggs, with a nutmeg grated, and a little beaten cinnamon.  Set the basin on the fire with the wine and eggs and let it be hot.  Then put in the cream boiling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settled, strew on the top a little fine sugar mingled with three grains of ambergris, and one grain of musk, and serve it up.


Posset pot, Netherlands, Late 17th or early 18th century, Tin-glazed earthenware painted in blue V&A Museum no. 3841-1901[1] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Posset pot, Netherlands, Late 17th or early 18th century, Tin-glazed earthenware painted in blue V&A Museum no. 3841-1901[1] Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1 quart of whipping cream

1 pint of ale

10 medium egg yolks

4 medium egg whites

1 cup sugar (or less according to your preference)

1 tsp. grated nutmeg

In a large stew pan combine the cream and ale and whip them together gently with a whisk.

In a mixing bowl vigorously whip your egg whites until very frothy. Add the egg yolks to the whites and continue to whip until very well blended and add to the cream and ale.

Add the sugar and nutmeg. Over a medium heat cook the mixture, stirring all the while, until it thickens. This should not be runny and not a thick custard either.

It can be served from a small punch bowl to individual bowls or in glasses.

 Sack Posset

1/2 cup sugar

2 qts. milk

4 egg yolks, beaten

4 cups medium sweet sherry

Grated nutmeg or powdered cloves

Add sugar to milk in a saucepan. Mix well and heat to just barely scalding. Beat in the egg yolks. Stir in the sherry. Serve warm in punch cups, dusted lightly with nutmeg or cloves. 


The Puritan Pantry


Like all immigrants, 17th century Puritans in New England brought their eating and cooking habits with them when they crossed the Atlantic.  The hearth or fireplace dominated the main room, which was called a “hall,” a term that had its roots in the great halls of the middle ages.  It was the room where most of the inside activity took place: cooking, eating, working, and sleeping.  For many Puritans, especially in the early years of settlement, it was the only room.

When we look at pictures of 17th century hearths New England, one of the first things wegourds notice is their enormous size.  They’re big enough to stand up in and it’s not hard to imagine them filled with great, roaring fires.  But, in fact, that isn’t an accurate image.  The Puritan housewife actually spent much of her time inside the fireplace, tending several small fires at once.  She had to have at least three fires going to maintain different temperatures for cooking.  One was built to flame hotly, one consisted of glowing embers, and the third was made of hot ashes topped with coals.  She had to watch them closely.

It was a dangerous business.  Long skirts and aprons frequently burst into flame from being too close to the fire. The beam inside the fireplace would quickly become charred from burning.

The housewife’s cooking equipment included earthenware dishes, copper and iron kettles and iron spiders (frying pans resting on legs).  She had long handled dippers and spoons and glass bottles and pots. She improvised a double boiler by putting hay in the water at the bottom of a large iron kettle and resting a smaller kettle inside.

onions lgMeat was the basis of the Puritan diet.  It was made into stews and pies and often flavored with onions and herbs grown in the kitchen garden.  Salt was hard to come by, but sugar was plentiful.  It came from Barbados and was used to flavor cakes, puddings, and drinks.

Beans, squashes, onions and pumpkins were popular.  So was fruit; fruit trees were cultivated on most farms.  They Puritans favored apples, pears, and quinces.  They drank cider that was spiced and sweetened with sugar.

Here’s a 17th century recipe for a venison pasty:

Line the dish with a thin crust of good pure paste.  Make it thick toward the brim that it may be there a pudding crust.  Lay the venison in a round piece upon the paste in the dish.  It must not fill it up to touch the pudding. Put the cover over it and it over-reach upon the brim with some carved pasty work to grace it. It must go up with “a border like a lace” growing a little ways upwards upon the cover.  The cover should be arched and have a little hole in the top to pour in the well-seasoned broth made of broken bones and remaining flesh of the venison.

Bake 5 or 6 hours or more as an ordinary pasty. An hour or an hour and a half before you take it out, open the oven and pour the decoction of broken bones and flesh.


Cover Story

My new novel, Flight of the Sparrow, will be published in July, and available for pre-order in a month or so.  I just received a pre-publication picture of the cover and I love it!  It’s brilliantly and beautifully evocative of the story of Mary Rowlandson and her captivity during King Philip’s War.  From the native encampment with its domed wetus, to the faint old-fashioned script suggesting the laborious effort it took for Mary to write her best-selling captivity narrative, every detail has significance.  I especially like the barely discernible birds flocking across the “sky” of the woman’s apron – they’re so suggestive of freedom and joy.

I’m really excited to share it.  And I’d love to know what you think!

high res FOTS