Wednesday, November 27, 2013

We Gather Together...a Thanksgiving Excerpt from Sea Snow, the gentle haunting of a 19th century lighthouse

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Jennie A. Brownscombe
Those of us in the United States are preparing for tomorrow's All-American Holiday of Thanksgiving which falls on the fourth Thursday of each November. (Of course, like many American traditions, it probably has its roots in British and European harvest celebrations.) Where and when the First Thanksgiving was observed is up to some debate, some saying it was the 1621 Pilgrims' Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts  while others believe it was the 1619 Settlers' Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. Either way, it is a day to give thanks for all of our blessings, big and small, with many of us celebrating by eating copious amounts of food!

Today, I would like to take you back to a traditional celebration that would have been at home in turn-of-the-20th century Massachusetts by way of printing an excerpt from my novel, Sea Snow, the gentle haunting of a 19th century lighthouse. Here the villagers gather together to enjoy each others' company and favorite foods as the children perform a Thanksgiving pageant. 

"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell
...High, clear voices were heard in the distance and we all craned our necks toward the garden from which the sound came. A line of children, from youngest to oldest, marched in single file, singing “We Gather Together” as they approached. They were dressed in Pilgrim costume, black trousers and jackets for the boys and black dresses with starched white aprons and caps for the girls. Each one carried something symbolic of the harvest—pumpkins, gourds, clusters of grapes, bowls of cranberries and raspberries and nuts—and the tallest boy, bringing up the rear, proudly bore a great platter holding an enormous, roasted turkey, its golden brown skin glistening in the autumn sunlight. 
 With great ceremony, the children set down their treasures on a table until there was a long, colorful centerpiece stretching the length of the rows of tables where sat the admiring adults. Once the young man set his turkey on one of the serving tables, the children gathered into a cluster, all eyes on the garden. They completed the last verse of their Thanksgiving hymn just as drumbeats were heard resounding from the garden entrance. Gasps of  “Ooo’s” and “Ah’s” emitted from the grown-ups as another line of children, dressed in all manner of Indian garb, began their parade toward the tables. Brown leggings and shirts for the boys, and short, brown shifts for the girls, formed the backdrop for fanciful ornaments of feathers and beads and seashells. I noticed their feet were wrapped in soft, tan cloth, secured with leather cord. Each young “Indian” carried a gift of speckled Indian corn or a fish fashioned, quite realistically, from papier-mâché. These were placed on the tables among the Pilgrims’ gifts, to the steady drumbeat of a serious-faced little boy, his skin darkened for the occasion, blue eyes startlingly bright against his new complexion. The Indians joined the Pilgrims and all sang one verse of  “Come Ye Thankful People Come” with our minister urging us all to join in.
As the voices died down, he stepped before the children and raised his hands and closed his eyes, signaling the saying of the blessing. We all bowed our heads as Rev. Harris intoned a prayer of thanks for the bounteous goodness of God and for all the blessings He had bestowed upon us, particularly the blessing of these lovely children. With “Amen’s” arising from the gathering, Mr. Buchanan instructed us to take the plates we’d brought for the occasion and line up to share in the smorgasbord.
 I’ve heard of “groaning boards” before, and I think those tables would have groaned if they’d had voices! Never have I seen such a delicious display. Rev. Harris carved the great turkey and offered up juicy slices to adjunct the rest of the food. The tables were resplendent with corn puddings, baked beans, sliced beef, chicken and turkey, roasted potatoes—both white and sweet—string beans, butter beans, cranberry sauce, greens, and an incredible assortment of desserts. I cannot begin to name them all, everything from pumpkin pies sweetened with maple syrup to buttery pound cakes, to my favorite—Jenny’s sweet potato pie. I was proud to see my pie gobbled up quickly (although Joseph gazed forlornly at the empty dish, making me promise to fix another just for him!)
 We returned to our places at the tables and joyfully dug into our heavily laden plates. There was a chorus of satisfied remarks as we dove in, with many an inquiry as to “who made this pudding,” “these beans,” “this pie,” etc. It was a glorious time of food and fellowship! I introduced Mother and Father to everyone in turn, and I could see the blossom of peace blooming on Mother’s face as she was reassured, once more, of her daughter’s well being in this “foreign” land.
Once we were completely sated, Mrs. Buchanan stood at the end of one of the tables and rang a bell for our attention.
 “Now,” she said, “to complete the day, the children will give each of you a small piece of paper and place pencils on the tables for you to share. Please write down one thing for which you are truly thankful and pass your paper to the end of the table where either an Indian or a Pilgrim is standing. Once all have been collected, Mr. Buchanan will place them in the Thanksgiving fire and their ashes will rise to heaven in a symbolic gesture of our gratitude!”
 Dutifully, we set to our task. Some quickly wrote down their blessing while others thoughtfully scratched their heads or rubbed their chins in concentration. The choice was very difficult for me as there is so much for which I am thankful. Seeing the distress of those of us trying to decide among our blessings, Mr. Buchanan rose and said, “Remember, this is just one of your blessings. Just write down whatever comes into your heads. God knows your gratitude isn’t limited to this choice!”
 I scribbled down my response and passed it down the table, playfully slapping Joseph’s hand as he tried to read it. As the slips of paper were handed to them, the children dropped them into carved-out pumpkins, stationed at the head of each row of tables. Each pumpkin, brimming with thanks, was then carried to the schoolmaster standing by a great bonfire.
 “Dear God, Father, and Provider of us all, may the fragrance of these expressions of thanksgiving fill Heaven with their sweetness and gratitude.”
 With that, Mr. Buchanan took a pumpkin from each child, in turn, and emptied the contents onto the leaping flames.
 “Looks kind of pagan to me,” I heard Sam’s raspy whisper.
 “Shh!” Esther scolded.
 A titter of laughter rippled through the gathering, threatening to break the mood so skillfully cast by the dramatic Mr. Buchanan. When the last thankful notes sent smoke spiraling up toward the heavens, the schoolmaster turned and pronounced, “A Happy Thanksgiving to us all!”...

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


("The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe : This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Giving Thanks...for 18th century Brunswick Stew

Brunswick Stew
So, I am setting aside the diverse swirling claims for the origin of this Southern culinary classic comfort food, be it place or date of origin, and sharing the recipe with which I grew up. This particular recipe comes from the Chowning's Tavern Cookbook of Colonial Williamsburg.

 For those of you who may not know, Williamsburg was the political, educational, and cultural center of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. It is home to the College of William and Mary which received its charter from King William III and Queen Mary II of England on February 8, 1693. Second in age only to Harvard, William and Mary educated many of America's Founding Fathers including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and is still a vibrant and revered college to this day. Check out William and Mary at:

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
To prevent the deterioration of one of America's historical gems, two men joined forces in the 1920's to preserve, restore and, when necessary, accurately replicate the buildings of Colonial Williamsburg. The two men were the rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church, the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, and wealthy philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Today you can stroll the streets of the town, eat in its taverns, and enjoy its shops along with costumed reenactors for a real 18th century experience. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg visit:

18th Century American Feast
Now, for that recipe that will be part of my Thanksgiving celebration (which, for our family, stretches from Thursday through Sunday of next week!)  Feel free to alter according to your own taste (the early cooks probably included squirrel.) Serve it with cornbread (fried or baked) and/or ham biscuits (thin, succulent slices of Virginia or country ham nestled inside warm, buttered biscuits.)

This makes a large pot of stew but it freezes well and actually improves in rich flavor when prepared ahead of time and slowly re-heated.

Brunswick Stew from the Chowning's Tavern Cookbook

~~ Ingredients:
• 2 chickens (about 3 pounds each), cut into 6 or 8 pieces 
• 4-5 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 2 (16-ounce) cans, drained, seeded, and chopped 
• 4 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels 
• 3 medium all-purpose potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
• 2 large onions, thinly sliced
• 2 cups fresh or frozen lima beans
• 2 cups fresh or frozen sliced okra
• 1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste 
• 1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste 
In a large pot, place the chickens and add enough water to cover, 2-3 quarts. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, partially covered, until the chicken is falling off the bones and the broth is well flavored, 2-3 hours. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken to a bowl and cool.

Skim the broth. Add the tomatoes, corn, potatoes, onions, lima beans, and okra. Season with the salt, pepper, and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook, stirring often, until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, pull the chicken off the bones. Add the chicken to the vegetables and taste the stew for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper, or sugar as desired. Serve hot in warmed bowls. ~~

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


Photo Credits:
Brunswick Stew--  By Joe Loong ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia--  By Harvey Barrison from Massapequa, NY, USA (Colonial Williamsburg Uploaded by AlbertHerring)  [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (],  via Wikimedia Commons

18th Century American Feast--  By Harvey Barrison from Massapequa, NY, USA  (Colonial Williamsburg  Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-SA-0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

So You Want To Be A Colonial America?

Portrait of 18th century Surgeon John Hunter by Joshua Reynolds
During the early days of Colonial America, university trained physicians were few and far between. Most doctors, trained in Europe, were quite comfortable remaining in their homeland and had no desire to brave the wilds of the New World. Many of the doctors who came and remained in 17th and 18th century America were ship's surgeons or apothecaries, at best. There were, however, a few brave medical souls who found the idea of chartering unknown territory a desirable, even exciting one. As time went by, more and more young colonists were sent to Europe for their medical training and returned home to serve the needs of the pioneering folk of the thirteen colonies.

One practice that prevailed all the way into the middle of the 19th century was that of young men apprenticing to established doctors. The term of the apprenticeship averaged five to seven years and usually commenced between the ages of 14 and 18. The young apprentice would pay a fee of about $300 and for that he would be given room and board, often in the physician's own home, training, and finally a certificate of completion along with medical books and a set of pocket tools to begin his professional life. He might even receive the skeleton of the body stolen from the churchyard with which he had received much of his education!

By Vincent de Groot 
The first phase of his training was termed "reading with the doctor." During this time he would be given reading assignments from medical texts and would be tested on the information as well as instructed to recite what he had learned. He would also observe and, later, assist with patients who came to the doctor's office. Skills involving bloodletting, tooth extraction, and the care of wounds would be learned in this way. Many doctors of the time mixed and dispensed their own medicine so the apprentice would spend much time learning to grind, mix, and prepare needed drugs.

The second phase of training was called "riding with the doctor," in which the student/assistant would accompany the doctor as he attended his patients in their homes. The apprentice listened and observed the doctor and on the way home would discuss the diagnosis and method of treatment. He would assist the doctor during these house calls and toward the end of his training would be sent out on his own to check on patients under his teacher's care. For 200 years, 90 percent of American doctors were trained under the apprenticeship method and even as late as the mid 19th century, more than half had still been trained in this manner.

Men did not pursue medicine to become wealthy. Especially away from the larger towns, patients might pay their doctors with produce or eggs from their own farms. Perhaps I'll drop my health insurance and stock up on canned tomatoes from my garden instead. What do you say, Doc?  

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


(My thanks to the Galter Health Sciences of Northwestern University for this research. You may read more at .   Skeleton photo: - (Own work) [GFDL (,  CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-5 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

All Hands on Deck! Stepping aboard a 16th century experience

Elizabeth II at Edenton Dock
As part of our town's 300th Anniversary Celebration, Edenton, North Carolina recently hosted a visit by the representative ship, Elizabeth II. The 69 foot, square-rigged ship was built to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of Sir Walter Raleigh's exploratory expeditions to the New World and, since 1984, has allowed us to travel back in time to experience a taste of those extraordinary adventures. The construction of Elizabeth II was carried out by a building and rigging crew in Manteo, North Carolina, along the same banks first explored by the English settlers. When not sailing to other ports of call, the Elizabeth II floats in Shallowbag Bay at Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo, along the famous Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Flag of St George and the Tudors
Upon first seeing the vessel, I am struck by the sensation of viewing an art work come to life since our only visual experiences with such ships are through paintings and drawings of the time. The Elizabeth II was built with an eye to historical accuracy and no detail was overlooked. The ship's design was based upon several merchant ships that plied the seas and crossed the Atlantic between 1584 and 1587 at the command of Queen Elizabeth I. As I stand on the dock gazing at the ship, flags ripple in the gentle October breeze. They, too, are representatives of their time. One flag is white with brilliant green stripes, Elizabeth's family Tudor flag, and others display the red cross of Saint George, the patron saint of England.
Elizabeth II Rigging
Stern of Elizabeth II at Edenton Dock
Ropes Below Deck
Captain's Quarters
Costumed interpreters welcome us aboard and gently guide us around the many trip hazards at our 21st century feet and remind us to mind our heads as we descend into the lower depths of the ship. Not only was the ship built to look like a ship of old, it was constructed using 16th century methods. The spars (masts, yards, booms, poles) were built from wood procured from Tacoma, Washington. The large spars were made of Douglas fir and the smaller ones were made of Sitka spruce. Each mast and yard was made out of one tree selected for its appropriate size, stripped of its bark and turned on a large lathe to the exact dimensions needed. The 16th century technology employed even went so far as to having the huge sails hand sewn. The sailmaker chosen for this task was Nathaniel Wilson of East Boothbay, Maine.

Turning the Capstan to lower the anchor
As we climbed down the steps leading below deck, I was cognizant of the confined spaces that would have housed the 50 men on board such a vessel. Reaching the lower deck I heard the soft Scottish accent of a man, dressed in the manner of a 16th century seaman, explaining the origin of the term "son of a gun." According to this man (who could have easily passed for Johnny Depp!) captains would sometimes bring their wives along on voyages but disguise them as men and often have them work as gunner's mates. When the inevitable happened and these gunners ended up in childbirth, the baby boy was called a "son of a gun." I have heard other explanations for the term, but will leave that for another day.

My dear 89 year old mother accompanied my husband and me on the tour of the ship and as
she posed for a photo I was reminded of the irony of the situation. Some of her ancestors (and mine, too, of course) were among the native inhabitants of this New World along with other ancestors of ours who were part of the English settlers who first met them.
My mother, Oleta Wood, aboard Elizabeth II

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


(All photos on this post were taken by my husband, William Ahearn, and used with his kind permission.)