I love old cookbooks. I found Eating the Plates: A Pilgrim Book of Food & Manners amidst Americana cookbooks at the local library. I like regional and historical cookbooks. I like gaining an understanding of how people live through what they do at the table. I thought this might be interesting. For the most part, it isn’t.
The book introduces the Pilgrims from the time they fled from England to Holland and then onto the New World. There is a short discussion of who they were and why they came to the new world. It is then that we get into food.
The first food discussion is about eating on the Mayflower. I know I had not thought about the practical issues of cooking on board a wooden ship. Add the difficulty of keeping food without refrigeration to help preserve the food. This is one of the more interesting chapters. Kids, no doubt, will like the tidbits of information such as the Pilgrims liked to eat mostly at night when they couldn’t see the weevils climbing on in and through the biscuits that were the staple food on board. Trivia like this makes this a book that could actually help you stay on your diet as you’ll lose your appetite reading the details.
When the Pilgrims finally get to the New World, we find out that the Pilgrims were not good hunters or trappers. The seeds they brought with them didn’t grow well. If not for the Native Americans who taught them to plant corn, everyone would have starved. European farming methods were not appropriate to the New World. Also, they had to adapt to a number of foods unique to their new home.
Then we get into the first houses the Pilgrims built and the dangers of cooking. More than one woman burned while cooking food on a spit in the large hearths. Once the Pilgrims made it through the first year and others joined them (and brought a cow and bull) things begin to get better. (Cooking still remained a danger.)
There’s a fair amount of discussion here on how the food was prepared and preserved and finally served. No sets of silverware. Each person had his or her own knife and spoon. Pilgrims ate off of plates made of slabs of bread called trenchers. The meat and vegetable juices would soak into the bread which would then be eaten.
The book finally does provide a few recipes at the end and a glossary of terms like “neat’s tongue” and “bearberry.” The recipes include a baked pumpkin with apples and Indian pudding. All the recipes utilize basic ingredients and methods that the average individual could replicate. Children could certainly make the menu with adult supervision.
Unfortunately, despite its abundance of interesting tidbits of information, the book is boring. The book appears to be aimed at children in the upper elementary grades – 4th, 5th and 6th. The language is certainly appropriate to this level. The writing style is dull. I fell asleep reading this one, and I’m interested in the topic. I suspect children who could read this in small tidbits would find this interesting, but this isn’t a book I would expect them to read through in one blast.
The illustrations are all black and white line drawings, or black and white reproductions of oil paintings. While the paintings and drawings might be genuine works from the period, they do little to offer enlightenment. There is a description of grinding flour from corn that I found hard to follow. There is no illustration of this process. On the facing page, instead, there is a picture of a pig sniffing the roots of a tree. This is not the only instance. The illustrations also dwindle as the book goes on. At the beginning, nearly every page has an illustration. By the end, only about every fourth page is illustrated.
I had high hopes for this book. I enjoy food anthropology. I did find some new information, but it was tough to slog through this one..
If you’re trying to interest your child in history or to make him or her think about how people lived in other times, read the book yourself and pass on the information to your child. Or check out other cookbooks from times gone by.