Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thanksgiving - Before The First

What did Europeans eat before Tomatoes!
       Instead of answering all my questions, research concerning that first Thanksgiving has only raised more. In particular, I realized how little I know about the background of these people who journeyed so far–and are remembered with so many misconceptions. Yes, they came to the New World so they could practice religious freedom, but they weren’t interested in anyone else’s rights in this regard, only their own. Their clothes were more likely burgundy or purple than black. The big buckles on shoes and those big white collars we all learn about in grade school were added by artists much later to symbolize quaintness. They worked hard, but they played hard too. And not all those who landed from the Mayflower were Separatists, or what later became known as Pilgrims.
       These Separatists were not peasants, but educated people free to leave the land. Some were even college graduates. Most were "tradesmen." From what I’ve read, I’d say they were intellectuals and businessmen rather than farmers and craftsmen. One hundred, two colonists landed in Massachusetts in 1620. Seventy-three were male, but 32 of these were under-aged and eight were hired servants. Twenty-nine were women. Eighteen of these accompanied their spouses. The rest were younger, unmarried, accompanying their parents. Some of these under-aged people were infants.
       The voyage must have been pure hell. The Mayflower was a cargo ship, ill-equipped to hold passengers in addition to its crew of thirty. The voyage lasted 66 days, with a diet of salted beef and hard tack (dry biscuits). Even this poor fare become inedible before the ship reached land. When the water supply became contaminated, the only alternative was beer. Cooking was limited by foul weather and the use of charcoal in a metal box rather than a genuine stove. There was little enough room for people, let alone supplies. The women brought what they would need to cook at their new homes. Men brought their weapons, and tools and seeds for farming. I found only one mention of livestock and that was goats. The passengers brought aboard some dried peas, beans, cheese, and butter, but I found no information on how much "some" was or whether this was eaten, spoiled, and saved until landfall. I expect the first two options apply.
       The ship landed in November. Illness struck soon afterwards. Housing was not ready for everyone until four months later. The entire colony would have perished if friendly Indians hadn’t helped them.
       One can see why they wanted to celebrate their good fortune at having survived until the fall of 1621. But this raises the question: how did their diet in the New World compare to what they might have eaten back home? Have you ever wondered what Europeans ate before they discovered tomatoes and potatoes?
       You’ve probably seen paintings depicting banquets during the Middle Ages: people slobbering over the food and tossing bones to dogs gathered for their share of the feast. Again, artists have taken liberties with truth. Research tells us that a table set in those days would pass in a modern home. I find this a little hard to swallow whole, but I wasn’t the one who did the research. Meat was scarce and expensive and many had it only on special occasions. The choice, however, was less limited than ours. One list of options included starlings, vultures, peacocks, capons, dog fish, porpoises, seals, whale, hedgehog, lamprey eels, crayfish and oysters. Hunting deer, rabbit, hare, and boar was a privilege of kings and the penalty for pouching was death or lose of a hand. Vegetable choices were cabbage, turnips, parsnips, carrots, garlic, onions, leeks, sorrel, peas and beans, with fruit available seasonally. Spices commonly available (at least to nobility) were nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Then, of course, there are the flowers and herbs (like borage, purslane, stinging nettles and dandelions) that came to us from Europe because they were food, but are not even mentioned in the sources I read.
       All this was available, but what did the average person eat on an average day?
       As now, the answer to that depended largely on one’s financial state. A prosperous peasant might consume two to three pounds of bread a day; eight ounces of fish, meat, eggs or cheese; and two to three pints of ale. Meat, though, was an exception rather than the rule. For vegetables he would likely choose from onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans. All in all, he ate healthier than most modern men, except that their vegetables were almost invariably cooked because eating raw veggies was considered unhealthy.
       Here are three examples of daily food consumption.
1. Three eggs, three cups of oat porridge, three pints ale, eight oz cheese = 3500 calories.
2. Two cups beans, two pounds whole wheat bread, three pints ale, four cups turnips = 4350 calories.
3. Eight oz pork, two and a half pounds rye bread, three pints ale, two cups cabbage = 4000 calories.
       I’m going to get in trouble here because I can’t find the website where I got this information so I can give credit. I hate it when that happens.
       Recommended daily calories for a modern man is about 2000 calories, but in Medieval times a man often worked a twelve hour day of hard labor. He would have starved on 2000 calories. I’m assuming that available foods remained largely unchanged from the Middle Ages until discovery of the New World and all its bounty, so the Pilgrims might well have been used to eating like this. In some accounts of early settlements I’ve read, the colonists starved because they were surrounded by food they did not recognize as such. That might have happened to the Pilgrims too if it hadn’t been for Squanto and other helpful folks.
       When I started this project I never expected to delve so deeply into history, which I find much more interesting now than I did in grammar school, perhaps because I can relate better to the colonists' problems than I could as a child. That you've read this far suggests that you share that interest to some extent. If so, please leave a comment to fuel more posts!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all your work in researching and writing this article. I just found your site, and I am so glad I did!