Life as a Pilgrim: Cooking

When I was about nine, my grandmother* took me to Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts.  It was a cool New England day in the summer, a bit misty and damp, and I’ll never forget how shocked I was as I stood inside those tiny houses, amazed at how dark and smoky and damp they were.  I felt sure that the Pilgrims must have been incredibly brave and determined people to purposely live in such difficult conditions.
As a teacher, I feel that we often leave that part out of the Thanksgiving story.  Yes, we talk about a rough winter, about Squanto teaching Pilgrims how to plant corn, and then a miraculous, wonderful harvest and a big party to celebrate; but I want to dig deeper into the story.  How did they really survive that first winter?  Why were the Pilgrims – really called ‘Separatists’ – so very determined to stay in the New World?  How difficult was that first winter really, and what was their trip like on the Mayflower, anyway?  Basically, what did their everyday lives really look like?  What kind of people were they?
As a parent, I want my children to understand about the kind of people who will do anything to obey the calling that God has placed on their hearts – even when it makes no sense to their peers.  So this month, we’re studying the real story of the ‘Pilgrims’ – and we’re doing it in a real way.
We’re reading books, studying photographs of my two journeys to Plimoth Plantation, and watching virtual tours- but we’re also getting together with friends to try our hands at some real Pilgrim activities.  We began yesterday.
After trekking out to the edge of the forest, we talked about how the Pilgrims brought very little with them – and so they had available to them whatever they could find on the beach or in the forest.  With that in mind, the children tackled their first task:  cooking.
We spent most of our day working with food – largely because that was one of the most important tasks for the Pilgrims during their first winter in Plimoth.  Arriving in December didn’t allow them to build or harvest anything leisurely – they had to hurry to settle in.  While they wouldn’t have had an oven to bake bread, they would have needed to find a way to cook, and simple quick breads and fritters were likely.


We gave the kids a batch of homemade play dough and asked them to cook it.  You should have seen their faces!
After working for nearly an hour, conferring, scouring the yard for natural ‘supplies, and talking through their plan, they built this spit-like contraption.  They broke the dough up into smaller pieces, reasoning that it would ‘bake’ faster this way, and they arranged it on boards and on a spit in the sun.  They felt sure that the sun would bake their small pieces of dough.


Next, we handed them a rubber ‘turkey.’  They laughed crazily at this one, but instead of building another spit as I expected, instead they went searching for vines.  They found one near the creek and tied the turkey to a tree.  Again, they expected the sun to cook their bird.
We had to have a long talk about the strength of the sun during a New England winter.
These Southern children were not impressed.  They seemed to prefer a Myrtle beach heat wave to a Massachusetts winter wind.  Oh, well.  Back to the drawing board!


Next we gave them each a walnut that we had harvested and dried from our backyard walnut tree this summer.  Now, this project completely cracked me up.  I’ve never seen kids struggle so much with a nut!  At a loss as to how to crack it without a nutcracker – which my kids have never seen, anyway – they began throwing the nuts at trees.  When that didn’t work – they just lost the nuts that way – they began banging and scraping them against the bark, trying to rub off the shell.


After a seemingly endless amount of time, we asked them to work on another plan, so they found some rocks.  They each put their nut on a rock and began banging on the nut with a stick.  That didn’t work out so well, either. They did throw large rocks at the nuts, and they cracked that way, but since that was rather dangerous – who really goes around throwing boulders at tiny walnuts? – they started again.  They tried everything from jumping on their nuts to making a 3-Pilgrim pile-up on top of a nut, hoping to squish it with their sheer accumulated body weight, but to no avail.  Finally, after a few hints towards other objects and reminders that their Pilgrim tummies weren’t filling up this way, they grabbed hand-size rocks and beat the nuts with it.  
Rock-hammers work for cracking walnuts.  Just so you know.
(It’s a good thing these kids aren’t real Pilgrims, but you gotta hand it to them – they’re seriously determined!)


Next, we moved on to the real cooking.  We gave each kid an ear of dried Indian corn and asked them to remove the kernels.  That proved to be harder than they expected.
Then, using borrowed mortars and pestles of different materials and sizes, they tried grinding the corn.


Eventually we used a very simple recipe to mix up our own cornbread.  My husband had a fire going in the yard, and so we cooked our cornbread outside in a pan over coals.  It was difficult to get the temperature right, the smoke burned my eyes as I tried to flip each one, and the kids danced impatiently around the fire as they waited hungrily to eat.  Oh, the life of a Pilgrim!
Finally the cornbread – and the simple pumpkin fritters that we’d made and also cooked over the fire – were ready.  They kids all liked the cornbread and asked for more.  The fritters were a bit less popular.  They all decided that cooking like a Pilgrim was hard work.


Back outside, the kids decided to check on their ‘bread’ dough.  They decided that it was getting crusty and that perhaps this sun thing was working.  We decided that next time we should use real dough instead of play dough that dried out so easily.  😉


Finally, each child settled in with a journal to record his/her thoughts about Pilgrim life and food.  Each child decided that being a Pilgrim was quite difficult – and one was quite certain that he didn’t want to give up his McDonalds’ drive-through or KFC.  They each seemed to feel that our lives today are much simpler – at least where basic survival is concerned – than that of the Pilgrims.  My Big Helper had so much to say that she began another book – complete, as my Little Man exclaimed, with “a Table of Continents.”

In the end, no matter how successful they might be at Pilgrim cooking, they met our goals.  They tried hard.  They were creative.  They thought outside the box, just as the real Pilgrims had to do.  They realized that the Pilgrims worked really hard and made do with what they had.  They also learned that they have lots to be thankful for.

Mission accomplished.

Shared at I Can Teach My Child.

Come back next week to see our next installment in our ‘Life as a Pilgrim’ series!

*Nana, thanks for taking me to Plimoth all those years ago.  It made a huge impression on me – and, by extension, is making one on my kids, as well.  🙂  I appreciate all the work you put into our summer excursions!

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