Colonial Holiday Meals

by Marilyn Buerkle

Marilyn Buerkle visited Pemberton Hall, an 18th century home in Wicomico County, to learn more about colonial festivities on Delmarva.

Watch slideshow:

Pemberton Hall Docent - Bill Wilson Pemberton Hall - Dining by the hearth Pemberton Hall - Dining table Pemberton Hall - By candle light

Many of us will spend the next few weeks either preparing holiday meals-or eating them-or both. Our families will come together for sumptuous suppers, delightful desserts and a cocktail or two. If we take a trip back in time, we'll find that Thanksgiving and Christmas weren't always such lavish celebrations.

Pemberton Hall, a plantation home completed in 1741, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained as an interpretive museum of local colonial life by the Pemberton Hall Foundation. Bill Wilson, a longtime member of the foundation's board, is our guide. Our first lesson-thanksgiving didn't exist and Christmas was a very low key event.

Bill Wilson:
Thanksgivings were for a special purpose. In Europe, for example, thanksgivings would be set aside for winning a battle or, you know, being saved from the plague … There would not have been a holiday called thanksgiving … Actually thanksgiving, it's not even created until the Civil War and not even put into effect until the 20th century.

Christmas was not really celebrated either, in the way that we think of it being celebrated. It was usually a very quiet occasion. In the Chesapeake, they would on Christmas Day, they would fire guns from one plantation to another so you'd hear them echoing all up and down the river … You might attend church service. But it was not, you know, all decorations, all hands on.

The one winter event that was likely to bring people together was Twelfth Night, a Christian holiday that marked the coming of the Epiphany and ended the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.

Bill Wilson:
They would have a party, a celebration, I'd put it that way, where relatives would come in, friends and neighbors would come in … The major meal of the day is eaten at about two to four o'clock in the afternoon and that is dinner … Supper is what's left over from dinner, and supper is eaten about eight-thirty or nine o'clock at night, and it's usually cold. The next morning, what you haven't eaten from dinner and from supper is going to be your breakfast, along with some waffles and hot milk.

Travel in the dead of winter was no easy task. So, unlike the few hours of holiday celebration we might enjoy, in the 18th century guests came and stayed-for two or three days. Their holiday meal would have featured multiple entrees, likely beef, ham and fish; absent any refrigeration, they would have been preserved with salt. It's also possible local geese or duck would be on the menu. That's if your host was a good shot.

Bill Wilson:
We have nice accurate shotguns now and nice accurate rifles to shoot deer with. They didn't … You're eating what's available to you, but you're also raising it. You're raising cattle, and you're raising pigs …

Now, you keep in mind, they are cooking this in fireplaces, so it's not the kind of thing where everything is on the table hot … As you finish your dishes, you put them on the table and you cover them, and they might sit there two or three hours before you got ready to serve them.

His description of preparation and storage makes it clear that salmonella and other food borne illnesses were prevalent, but not always deadly.

Bill Wilson:
I think they had gotten some immunities. They had terrible stomach problems, and there were all kinds of remedies that went on, home remedies that went on along with that. So I think they had acquired some immunities to things that would really do us in.

In fact, it was the threat of water related sickness that kept alcohol flowing, at every meal.

Bill Wilson:
If you're drinking water, it has wine in it. Even children in their baby bottles are given watered down wine. They didn't know why but you didn't get sick if you did it that way. But, you're drinking ciders … Hard cider, it wasn't soft cider that, you know, you buy in the supermarket out of apple juice. It was hard cider that they were drinking, and everybody drank it, the children included … I think, like everything else, you get, you build up a tolerance to it. So, no, I don't think they were buzzed all the time.

Maybe the best news about colonial celebrations, our founding fathers liked their sweets. You didn't have to wait for dessert to have pie.

Bill Wilson:
They liked a lot of sweets with things, and they liked a lot of, for example, a lot of pies. Now, we think of pies as being dessert, not in the eighteenth century. You would have pie as part of your dinner and as part of your supper.
So colonial cooks may have inadvertently invented a distinctly 21st century adage. Life is short; eat dessert first.

If you'd like to visit Pemberton Hall, tours are available. To schedule an appointment or find out about their educational events call 410-742-1741.

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