Every year at this time, wine lovers across the States seek out favorite wines to pair with their Thanksgiving meal. Mine are already selected; socializing with Arneis, cheese with Palo Cortado, Ruché with the turkey, and a nice grower Champagne for whenever. I guess the Riesling and Gigondas are also “whenever”. Why do we do this? Because a great meal likes great wine. But, the Thanksgiving meal is one based strongly on tradition. Turkey, goose, grains, squash, preserved fruits… these are all items thought to have been enjoyed by Pilgrims and their native neighbors in the colonists’ first Harvest Festival in the New World – later known as Thanksgiving. But what alcohol did they drink? There is little direct evidence available to answer this question, but it is unlikely that the first harvest meal involved any alcohol at all, as the newly arrived Pilgrim’s likely didn’t have any ale left from their passage. Even once they were more settled, wine was probably conspicuously missing from that table for a time; through the 17th century the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth would have most commonly drunk ale and rum.
While the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth occurred in 1620, the social coding influencing their alcohol options begins prior to their departure from England in 1607. England (and Europe) of the 16th and 17th centuries was strongly divided through intertwined elements of class, challenges to existing political structure, and religious fervor and reform. This broad-scale movement was brought to a crescendo around 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 points helped solidify the Protestant Reformation . It would be a few decades later that Henry VIII famously made the monarchy the head of the reformed Church of England in order to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
(An aside: Catherine of Aragon’s coat of arms included a pomegranate representing Granada, which had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon in the late 15th century. It is also thought that this symbolized fertility, but I prefer Granada. Ever since I learned of this heraldry, I have decided that the lemon shall evermore be my own personal symbol.) Of course Henry’s “reforms” centered more on his own needs for validation to marry another woman who could produce a male heir than on grounds of papal and clerical excess. The group that comprised the Pilgrims were “separatists”; their view of the reformation of the Church of England was that it was too little, and too entrenched to be modified to their liking and thus they must separate from it. Moreover, they were not free to practice their beliefs free of persecution. So, they escaped to the relative tolerance of the Netherlands, to which we will return later.
In addition to the Separatists, there were reformers who did stay in England, such as the Puritans. The Puritans attempted to reform the church from within; ultimately, they resisted the monarchy and its allies (who were known as “Royalists”, or “Cavaliers”) and instead supported Parliament (as “Parliamentarians” or “Roundheads”) in the lead up to the English Civil War of the 1640’s. The very term, “Roundheads”, had its origin in the close-cropped haircut favored by the Puritans – who later grew ringlets in defiance of this pejorative term. Of more interest here than naming schemes is the persistent social coding that associated wine with Cavaliers, and beer (or nothing) with Roundheads. This was partly due to economics; wine was expensive and Royalists were often of the landed gentry who would benefit from the status quo. Wine imported into England in the early-mid 17th century was commonly of French origin – namely from Gascony and Bordeaux, the latter of which initiated a strong British partiality to Claret (red wine of Bordeaux). The wine cork was not yet in fashion, and wine was imported in hogsheads (large casks of anywhere between 50-79 gallons) and served in decanters at the (wealthier) table. Beer, on the other hand, was associated with Parliamentarians, who were more often members of less-monied and storied classes and groups. Beer was cheap; it was locally brewed both commercially and domestically, from inexpensive and readily-available ingredients. While these associations began as a reflection of then-current behavioral norms,
they later became codified as a form of political identity – particularly amongst exiles as known for such communities in the Netherlands (Keblusek 2004). While an earlier community in exile in the Netherlands, the Separatists who constituted the Pilgrims would have embodied the cultural norms of anti-royalist England and probably drunk primarily beer. Nonetheless, in their new home in Amsterdam, they would have at least been introduced to that society’s alcohol practices; in the 17th century, the Dutch would be drinking Jenever , the distilled malt-wine flavored with herbs that was a precursor to gin.
Whether the Separatists embraced Jenever while in Amsterdam is unclear, but they do not seem to have taken it with them to the New World – at least in quantity to be present on shipping manifests or leave recognizable artifacts. Instead, the Mayflower was stocked with ale for the journey when it set sail in 1620. Unfortunately, there was enough ale for the seamen to drink on their return trip, but not to send forth onto dry land with the Pilgrims. Nor was there ale on shore that could be purchased; malted beverages were not found among the native populations, who did not grow barley. The lands inhabitants, the Wampanoag, did cultivate corn – and taught the Pilgrims how to do so – making it possible they used that corn to make a fermented beverage; a fermented-corn drink had long been made within the Pueblo tribe. Closer to their Pilgrim home, a fermented corn beverage was also made by the Huron. But, those were typically used for ritual or sacred events. So, while domestically-produced ale would become quite common within a few decades, it was not available for the earliest Thanksgiving, at least in Plymouth. Nor, it seems, was any type of alcohol.
But, it is no fun to conclude the Pilgrims’ feasting on such a sober note. Over time, of course, the Plymouth colonists (like others) had access to fermented products of their own making and – when wealthier – through importation. As in England, beer became the most-readily available and was the cheapest. Brandy was available in the 17th century from Dutch and English importation (Osgood 1904). Other than imports of spirits, one of the earliest beverages distilled in the colonies was rum. Colonists had obtained rum from Barbados in the mid-17th century, but began distilling it themselves as early as 1664 from imported molasses – also obtained from the Caribbean. Rum was immensely popular; there were more than 140 rum distilleries in the Colonies by 1770. Like beer, rum was also cheap when distilled domestically; in the mid-18th century, 1 gallon of rum could be purchased in Philadelphia for 1 pence, 8 shilling. (Sadly, I’ve been unsuccessful attempting to convert that into 2014 dollars…). It was drunk straight, and also made a popular cocktail (with beer) called “Flip“. Whiskey – a most American of spirits – was distilled in the 17th century but only gained a foothold relative to rum in the 18th century.
So, want to drink like an early colonist? Stick with beer and rum. I’m no purist, so I’ll have my turkey with wine.
Kublusek, M. 2004. “Wine for Comfort: Drinking and the Royalist Exile Experience 1642-1660″ in A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England, A. Smyth (ed). Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
Osgood, H.L, 1904. The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. NY: MacMillan.