The Communal Table

Plimoth Plantation dishes out the ultimate harvest feast.

By Maria Allen| Photography by Julia Cumes

Long-table dinners have become quite trendy in recent years, with esteemed restaurant chefs dishing up gourmet farm-to-table meals in out-of-the-way places. But there are few communal dining experiences that rival the authentic flavor of Plimoth Plantation’s New England Harvest Feast.

Vicki Oman , Plimoth Plantation’s director of museum programs and school services, greets young guests at a New England Harvest Feast.

Not to be confused with the living history museum’s massively popular American-style Thanksgiving dinners, which each year attract close to 2,500 people to partake of family-style turkey dinners with stuffing and all the usual fixings, the harvest feast is designed to offer a more historically accurate and entertaining taste of 17th-century dining.

One might assume that a meal celebrating the food traditions and recipes of Pilgrims might be a bit, shall we say, bland. But in reality, the food is surprisingly flavorful and served up in a manner that guarantees a memorable dining experience.

On one crisp autumn evening, guests arrive at the Henry Hornblower II Visitor Center just as the sun is setting. They are escorted to a dining room with cathedral ceilings and two long farm tables. Seated beside strangers, attendees begin to introduce themselves to one another, discovering that many have traveled from far and wide to attend the dinner.

There’s a recently married couple from Oregon, visiting Plimoth Plantation as part of a New England getaway, and a pair of young professionals from California who share an update on the state’s recent wildfires. Across the table are four retired Canadians (three female friends and a token husband, who jokes that he’s the navigator of the group). For all of these visitors, it is their first visit to the region—and their first lesson in 17-century dinner etiquette.

“Men shall drape their napkin over their left shoulder and eat with their right hand,” instructs Mistress Susannah Winslow, portrayed by living history education specialist, Malka Benjamin. “Women may lay their napkin on their lap or place it over their left arm.”

The table is set with faux pewter plates, spoons and knives, but there are no forks to be seen.

“I use a fork to pitch hay,” says goodwife Elizabeth Warren, portrayed by director of education and public programs, Vicki Oman. “Keep that napkin handy.”

Living history educator Malka Benjamin raises a glass in good cheer.

Wearing historically accurate floor-length dresses and fitted white coifs atop their heads, the women educate diners about the food they are about to receive and share anecdotes about life in the Plymouth colony. During dinner, guests are entertained with centuries-old psalms and songs and are invited to raise a glass and sing a round or two. A modern host is also available to answer any questions guests may have.

Unfortunately, little is known for sure about the harvest celebration of 1621 that became known as the “first Thanksgiving,” so the spread of dishes served up at the New England Harvest Feast is reflective of the ingredients would have been readily available to the colonists. Roasted turkey, for example, may have been served, as wild turkeys were plentiful in New England. But there were no sweet potatoes or potatoes grown in the colonial gardens of Plymouth. What they did have were pumpkins and squashes (or Pompions, as the English referred to them) which were stewed and mixed with spices. Fish, shellfish were readily available and native corn, a primary crop of the Wampanoag and later the colonists, was most certainly on the menu (most often made into a porridge or pudding).

The menu at the New England Harvest Feast included items like Mussels seeth’d with parsley and beer and sweet pudding of native corn, made with freshly ground cornmeal from the Plimoth Grist Mill and dried blueberries.

“Guests are often surprised by how much they like the food,” says Benjamin, who particularly enjoys seeing children’s reactions when they try a dish and love it. “Back then the spice palate was very different. They were cooking meats with cinnamon and ginger.”

Down in the English Village, visitors can see, touch and even hear representations of the past, but at harvest dinners, they also get to experience history through the sense of taste. And by the end of the meal, everyone is clinking glasses and enjoying each other’s company like old friends.

“Food is such a central part of our lives today and it certainly was 400 years ago,” says Benjamin. “As a staff member, I love working harvest dinners because we’re enabling people to feel like they’re stepping back in time. What better way to be transported.”


Bill of Fare

Starters

Cider
Cheate bread and butter

First Course

A sallet
Mussels seeth’d with parsley and beer
A dish of turkey, sauc’d
A pottage of cabbage, leeks and onions
A sweet pudding of native corn

Second Course

Stew’d pompion
A chine of pork, roast’d
Fricassee of fish
Cheesecake made with spice and dried fruit
A charger of cheese and fruit

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