Topic Early Pilgrim Dinner
Mistress Rebecca Spray shows dried corn being processed into flour or meal
Something to think about and be greatful we do not have to go out and catch, kill and dress out turkeys before we can cook them-but it’s nice to remember on where we come from as well.
Step into the kitchen at the Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City, and the year becomes 1661.
As Mistress Rebecca Spray prepared the midday meal Nov. 12 by the open hearth for her family and the workers connected with the farm, one of the indentured servants and a hired hand debated the quality of their food in the Maryland colony, compared to meals they had back in England.
“It’s made of Indian corn here,” said William Felstead, the hired hand, referring to the crust of the meat pasty, a kind of baked meat turnover, that will be part of the upcoming meal.
“It’s bland and gritty,” he said, making a face.
“I prefer wheat” flour, agreed John Prentiss, the indentured servant.
Mistress Spray chided them for grumbling. “It keeps you from starving, doesn’t it?” she asked, looking up from her work, patting a handful of cornmeal crust mixture into a circle.
But even she noted later that the corn meal that has become so prevalent in her family’s diet, since arriving in the New World nine years earlier, has some characteristics she and other colonial cooks have had to overcome to continue preparing foods like the meat pasty that was part of their diet in England. Corn is easier to grow in the colony than wheat, she said.
In fact, to assure that the colonists don’t neglect growing food because they are so focused on the money-making tobacco plant and that they will provide for their household, by law, colonists during this period are required to grow at least two acres of corn per each man in their household who works in the field, Felstead noted.
But the pasty (pronounced “pass-tee”) crust doesn’t hold together as well using corn instead of wheat flour, Mistress Spray said, demonstrating by crumbling off the edge of an uncooked pasty waiting to be cooked with her fingers.
“Wheat doesn’t break apart like that,” she said.
Felstead and Prentiss decide to heat up a couple of completed pasties that had been sitting on the table as they wait for their meal. They put the hand-sized, chicken-and-turnip-filled crusts, in a skillet over the fire and watch as they warm.
The crust is thick and made with lard and is very filling — one of the main goals of the colonial diet, Mistress Spray said.
A meat pasty is a way to stretch meat a little further. This was particularly helpful in England, because meat was more dear there, due to restrictions on hunting. In the Maryland colony, however, pork, beef, fish, fowl and a variety of game are more available, Felstead said.
“You can hunt all you want here in Mary-land … not like in England.”
It was in England that Mistress Spray first learned how to cook, she said. How to create different dishes was information passed down from generation to generation, although the writing down of recipes was practiced by some, and books of these recipes did exist for literate, wealthy people, she said.
She smiles when asked how much time she spends preparing food to feed her husband, seven children and the farm’s two hired hands and four indentured servants.
“Sun-up to sundown,” she said.
For the filling for a meat pasty, this day she has chosen to mince chicken meat and cut up some turnips, although she noted that pork and beef also work well. “You can add onions, garlic,” she said.
Even starting with the corn already grown and dried and the chicken already raised and slaughtered, the chicken meat must be cooked and the corn pounded into a meal or flour.
“We have the children grind the corn,” Felstead said.
“They pound it with an iron bar,” she explained, stepping out into the yard to show the bar her children use for that everyday chore. “Then you sift that meal that you’ve crushed.”
Mistress Spray has seven children, thus plenty of hands for that task.
Mistress Spray, William Felstead and John Prentiss will be sharing more about the foods they eat and how it is prepared at Historic St. Mary’s City’s Hearth and Home in Early Maryland event on Nov. 26 and 27.
The event, which vies with Woodland Indian Discovery Day in September as the most-visited event for the museum, is designed to offer visitors a glimpse of the work colonists were required to do just to eat, said Susan Wilkinson, director of marketing and communications for Historic St. Mary’s City.
“For this event, the focus is food and visitors will leave with a recipe booklet for colonial dishes adapted for the modern kitchen,” she wrote in an e-mail. “After seeing open hearth cooking, watching the chickens run in the garden, and grinding corn, I think many will find a new appreciation for their microwaves, refrigerators, sinks and grocery stores.”
Mistress Spray, Felstead and Prentiss, who are based on actual Maryland colonists, are portrayed by Roberta Smith, site supervisor at Godiah Spray Plantation; Peter Friesen and John Harvey, all residents of St. Mary’s City.
They field questions about their lives as colonists from 40,000 to 50,000 visitors to the museum every year, according to Wilkinson.
The most common questions? “What do you eat? When do you eat? Does is taste good? What do you do with all the food you grow?”
Part of their job is being willing to learn. For instance, they take recipes from the time period and try to replicate them with what they have available at the plantation. “It’s sort of experimental archaeology,” Smith said.
Some of the experiments were dismal failures. “Stuffed turnip. Ugh. It was terrible,” Friesen said.
“Battered yarrow … really strong stuff,” Smith said.
They have found that the colonists were heavy handed with herbs and spices. But sugar was used sparingly, as it was more rare and expensive.
They noted that nothing was wasted. “They would use the whole animal, face and all … everything but the squeal,” Friesen said.
A dish that was a hit in the museum’s experiments was a colonial recipe for turkey, which directed the cook to boil the carcass in a mixture that was mostly butter.
“So good,” Harvey said.
Meat pasty with fowl Dough
3 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks butter (cold)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
6 tablespoons water
In a large bowl, combine flour, butter and salt. Blend flour, butter and salt until well combined. Add water slowly, to form dough. Knead the dough to distribute the butter evenly throughout.
Form into a ball, dust with flour, cover and chill for 30 minutes.
1 pound chicken, ground
5 turnips, cubed
2 large onions, cubed
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Combine all ingredients in large bowl.
Divide the dough into six pieces, and roll one of the pieces into a 10-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Put 1 1/2 cups of filling on half of the round. Moisten the edges and fold the unfilled half over the filling to enclose it. Pinch the edges together to seal them and crimp with your thumb and forefinger. Transfer pasty to lightly buttered baking sheet and cut a few slits in the top. Continue to make more pasties with the remaining dough. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Put one teaspoon of butter through a slit in each pasty and continue baking for 30 minutes more. Remove from oven and cool.
The above recipe was adapted for the 21st-century palate from a 17th-century pasty recipe and was provided by Roberta Smith, site supervisor at Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City..
Text and photo’s by Susan Craton
Farm scene at Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary's City,
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