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 we 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.
Meat 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.