Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Discover the First Thanksgiving and a Recipe for a 17th-Century Style Berry Cornbread

Narragansett Berry Cornbread

The First Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving was an English-based special celebration of thanks celebrated by Protestant Sectarians who called themselves Separatists, Saints, Calvinists, Planters, or Englishmen but never Pilgrims (that is a Victorian term applied to them).  Interestingly, of the 102 passengers plus about 30 crew who sailed on the Mayflower, only about 37 were Separatists.  These people were separating themselves from the Church of England to create their own pure form of the Protestant religion based on the teachings of John Calvin in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The Mayflower landed at Plymouth in the Fall of 1620 but the people remained on board ship throughout the winter.

Contact with the Local Wampanoags
The settlers did not come into direct contact with the local natives, the Wampanoags, until  March 16, 1621, when a Wampanoag Indian from Maine, Samoset, visited the village. He had learned some English from prior contact with English near his home in Maine. He returned with Tisquantum (aka Squanto) who knew English very well from his previous captivity in England. Together they taught the English about local berries, nuts, and fish and taught them how to farm Indian corn, beans, and squash. In that same month, the settlers and the Wampanoags, represented by their leader, Massasoit, entered into a treaty of mutual protection.

Harvest Home

The First Thanksgiving was actually based on a British tradition called Harvest Home.  It was held when it was felt that God had bestowed his providence on the people in an extraordinary way.  It occurred at some point in the early fall of 1621, no exact date is known.  Harvest Home was only meant to be celebrated at special times, not annually. The second was held in 1623.  There are very few first-hand accounts of the first celebration and/or about food in the early days of Plymouth Plantation.   One account was written by Edward Winslow to a Friend in England and appears in Mourt’s Relations, 1621; another source about food comes from a letter written by William Hilton of Plimoth; and, finally, William Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation, written in 1647, discusses some of the food available.

First Thanksgiving Facts:  
  • Four men were sent to hunt for wild fowl; turkeys may or may not have been hunted.
  • The celebration lasted three days. 
  • The men held shooting games. This may have alarmed the nearby Wampanoags who went to offer help thinking the settlers were under attack. 
  • 90 Wampanoags were this invited to join the celebration, and they secured five deer to add to the feast.

What Else Could They Have Eaten?
There were lots of food options available to the colonists to be had through farming, hunting, and gathering. It is not known the extent to which the colonists embraced the local produce but this list represents some of what was possible to eat.
  • The Three Sisters:  Corn, Beans & Squash (pumpkins, gourds, etc)
  • Sunflowers:  Seeds and Oil
  • Sunchokes, Jerusalem Artichokes from the plant, Helianthus tuberosus, which is a relative of the sunflower family.
  • Fish & Seafood
  • Nuts (walnuts, chestnuts, acorns)
  • Berries and Fruit (raspberries, strawberries, cloudberries, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, ground cherries, beach plums)
  • Cattails
  • Maple Sugar
  • Sumac Berries
  • Important:  There is no evidence that cranberries were embraced by the colonists at this early date of settlement.
  • Other possibilities from Seeds Brought From England or Leftover from the Voyage:
    • Salad herbs such as onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, watercress, flax, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, and other leafy greens.
    • English Peas, a small amount since they harvested very few that first year
    • Wheat, (a small amount remained from the voyage) 
    • Beer, Small Beer, or Cider (possibly left from the voyage)

About this Recipe
The following recipe for Narragansett Strawberry Cornbread was written by Loren Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum located in Exeter, Rhode Island and included in the booklet called The Pleasure of the Taste, Recipes from 17th-Century Massachusetts published by The Partnership of Historic Bostons in 2015. You can order this book by clicking here. It contains a lot of very interesting recipes. This recipe has been published with permission given by Historic Bostons.

The Recipe: Narragansett Strawberry Cornbread
  • 1 ¼ cups stone ground yellow cornmeal or 1 ¼ cups stone ground white cornmeal 
  • 1 cup corn flour or all purpose flour 
  • 1 cup spring water or 1 cup milk 
  • ¼ cup oil or ¼ cup melted butter 
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ cup diced strawberries
  • ¼ cup maple syrup, honey, or sugar 
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Oil the bottom and sides of an 8-inch or 9-inch pie plate or round pan. Mix water or milk, oil or butter, and the egg in a large bowl with a wire whisk. Combine the remaining ingredients except the strawberries, stirring just until the flour is moistened (the batter will be lumpy). Add strawberries and mix gently. Pour into the pan.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Serve warm if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

My Recipe Adaptation: Narragansett Berry Cornbread

While trying to find a 17th century recipe that could have been made by the early English settlers at Plimoth Plantation (Plymouth) in Massachusetts for their harvest celebrations, I found a Narragansett recipe that realistically could have been made by the settlers. The Narragansett people lived in what is now known as Rhode Island; therefore, this recipe represents one that could have been made been the Wampanoag further up the Eastern seaboard. I like this recipe because it offers options for making it either with or without dairy or chicken eggs, which were not available in Plimoth (Plymouth) until after 1624. My adaptation, which follows, the original recipe, does use dairy and eggs suggesting it would not have been possible for that first thanksgiving in 1621. In addition, I used a dried berry assortment rather than just fresh strawberries. If you prefer to make the cornbread without the introduction to European dairy and eggs, you can use water in place of the milk, a duck egg instead of a chicken egg, and sunflower oil instead of butter.

Makes 6 to 8 Servings:

  • 1/2 Cup Spring Water 
  • 1/2 Cup Milk
  • ¼ Cup Melted Butter
  • 1 Large Egg
  • ¼ Cup Maple Syrup
  • 1 ¼ Cups Stoneground White Cornmeal 
  • 1 Cup Stoneground Whole Grain Pastry Flour
  • 4 Ounces Dried Berry Blend 
  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. 
  2. Oil the bottom and sides of an 8-inch or 9-inch pie plate or round pan. 
  3. Mix water, milk, butter, egg, and maple syrup in a large bowl with a wire whisk. 
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk together. Add the dried berries and mix until they are all covered with the flours.
  5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir just until the flour is moistened (the batter will be lumpy). Allow the batter to sit for about 30 minutes to soften the cornmeal.
  6. Pour into the prepared pan.
  7. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. 
  8. Serve warm if desired. 

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