Sunday, February 4, 2018

Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About Life in Colonial New England: What did they eat?

Pottage: It's Whats for Dinner

 Did you grow up in one of those families that had 'Meatloaf Mondays','Taco Tuesdays,' and so on through the week culminating in the Sunday roast. You need what day of the week it was by what appeared on the dinner table. People of a certain age will remember homemade pizza from a box and if you were feeling really exotic you had Chinese, which came in various cans. Today we food from every nation. It is nothing to whip up a Chicken Tikka Masala or Thai noodle soup. Still, we find ourselves bored when we eat 'the same food' to often. 

Pottage! from
Do you ever wonder what our ancestors ate, those long ago migrants to a new land? They landed on a shore teeming with waterfowl and wild turkeys. The woods were home to deer. The rivers ran with salmon and shad. The coastline abounded with clams and mussels, oysters and lobster lay just off shore.  Their were bogs full of cranberries and blueberry bushes with their sweet purple berries. Their Native American neighbors introduced them to pumpkins. A veritable smorgasbord was laid out before them. So what did they eat? Pottage. 

What is pottage you ask. Pottage was a mixture of dried grain, vegetables, herbs and if available some meat, boiled in an iron pot over the fire until it all reached the desired consistency: mush. This was eaten at all times of the day. You might have heard the child rhyme, Pease Porridge Hot, well pease porridge was a pottage made of dried peas. It could also be made with corn or oatmeal. The housewife might also add some dried salt pork or salt beef or venison. Chowder was originally a seafood pottage. When sheep became plentiful, mutton was added to the pot. 

Fresh meat was a rare treat. Most animals were slaughtered and the meat salted as a means of preservation. One exception was bacon, which was smoked to preserve it. Fruit was eaten in season or dried to eat in the cold winter months. Pickled vegetables of all sorts appeared on the Colonial table. Salat (salad) of fresh greens was also served. But most food was boiled. 

Boston Baked Beans from Chowhound
As the houses of those first settlers were enlarged and improved and brick chimneys became the norm, baking food became popular. Instead of your meal coming out of a single pot, it might be baked into a pie. Mince meat pies, unlike to ones we associate with Christmas, contained meat. Fruits of all sorts were baked into pies as was the pumpkin. Everyone's heard of Boston baked beans, haven't you? They were served with baked brown bread made from rye. The most frequent type of bread served was cornbread as wheat was difficult to grow. Wheat flour was used only to make the best bread and few people ate it on a daily basis. 

Hasty pudding was a staple. Made from cornmeal it was a polenta like dish. It could be eaten as cornmeal mush with a little molasses or milk or chilled, sliced and fried just like Italian polenta. Johnny cakes were made of corn and look just like pancakes. Hominy was dried corn, with it's hull removed, boiled until tender. It was served on it's own or in a pottage. 

Hasty Pudding, from
The early American dairymen made cheese; a firm aged cheddar like cheese, and of course butter. So life wasn't so bad, not when there's cheese! All in all it was a very predictable, monotonous diet interspersed with fresh fruits and veggies. Children did not wake up an ask, 'mom, what's for dinner.' They already knew the answer. Pottage may have been tasty, but if you have to eat everyday, meals became less about eating for pleasure and more about eating to live. Still, it was all washed down with alcohol. 

In my novel, Weave a Web of Witchcraft, I tell the story of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield, Massachusetts. The were both accused of Witchcraft and other crimes in 1651. The book details daily life in Colonial Massachusetts. The production, preparation, cooking and consuming of food took up most of their waking hours. My book can be found on

More burning questions about Colonial life:

Where did they sleep?

Where did they use the toilet?

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