Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.

These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.

Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military img_0936defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.

The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:

Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.

Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.

Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”

Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.

Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.

Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.


Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about.  I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors.  In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.

It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield.  Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.  Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.

Mary Rowlandson's Cupboard

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates.  Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces.  The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.

The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held.  Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies.  The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.

When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home.  The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire.  I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.

In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world.  While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home


John Pory’s Letter

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

Plimoth Plantation Palisade

For three years John Pory served as Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia.  On his way home to England in 1622, he stopped to visit the fledgling Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.  A perceptive, scholarly man, Pory recorded his observations in letters two years after the colony was founded.  In his descriptions of the native peoples and colonists in the area, he demonstrated an awareness of the complexities of the two cultures, and the possible challenges to forging a peaceful coexistence. He contrasts New England with Virginia, and finds Virginia wanting.  He praises the New England colonists for their morality and industry, expressing the wish the Virginians were “as free from wickedness and vice as they are in this place,” and admires the strength of their buildings, particularly the “substantial palisade” and “a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place in town in mount their ordnance upon.”  He comments on the abundance of seafood and the wholesomeness of the climate.  And then he describes the natives:

“The people seem to be of one race with those in Virginia, both in respect of their qualities and language.  They are great lovers of their children and people, and very revengeful of wrongs offered.  They make their canoes, their arrows, their bows, their tobacco pipes and other implements far more neat and artificially than in those parts.  They dress, also, and paint leather; and make trousers, buskins, shoes with far greater curiosity.  Corn they set none in their parts toward the   north, and that is the cause why Indian corn, pease and such like is the best truck [barter] for their skins—and then in winter especially, when hunger doth most pinch them. . . Their babes here also they bind to a board and set them up against a wall, as they do in the south.  Likewise, their head they anoint with oil mixed with vermillion; and are of the same hair, eyes and skin that those are of.”  He also describes the history of the political machinations between tribes and between colonists and natives and is open about the damage created by sea captains who took Indians captive in 1614 and 1620 and sold them into slavery.

Of course, Pory wrote his letter more than fifty years before tensions between colonists and natives had grown to the point of open violence.  But I find his account especially noteworthy because he puts the New England colonists and natives in a larger context.  Even in those days when transportation and information flow was so slow that we would find it unbearably frustrating, he was able to see the larger picture.  He was able to see the virtues and value the practices of people he did not live among.  It suggests he nurtured the seeds of a global mindset—a way of seeing the world beyond immediate, personal interests.  A mindset that we desperately need today.





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.