An Interview with Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian for Plimoth Plantation

Picture of Kathleen M. Wall - Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation

Kathleen M. Wall in 1627 Costume

Kathleen Wall has worked in various roles at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA since 1980. Since 2000 she has been the Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation. In this roll she trains the staff in 17th-century foodways, and plans and delivers public programs for adults, children and families. She also participates in film shoots and media interviews, responds to academic inquiries about colonial foodways and writes and lectures extensively. She blogs about colonial food in “Pilgrim Seasonings,” Plimoth Plantation’s colonial foodways blog.

Travel New England: Good morning. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Travel New England. I imagine that you are getting into your big season.

Kathleen Wall: Yes, it’s November and we’re the Pilgrims and thank you Thanksgiving, it makes us the center of the universe, and the day after Thanksgiving… not so much the center… Everyone’s on to Christmas.

Travel New England: Tell me a little bit about what you do for Plimoth Plantation as head culinarian.

Kathleen Wall: I’m the colonial foodways culinarian. So I deal with colonial food. We also have a Wampanoag program and they have their own foodways culinarian to deal with that side of things.

I set up our teaching and training behind our 1627 English Village exhibit and information for our Mayflower 1621 exhibit.

…and answer lots of questions about Thanksgiving.

Travel New England: Tell us a little more about the two exhibits.

Kathleen Wall: We actually have three exhibits. There are two English exhibits:

  1. The Mayflower II that is docked in Plymouth center which is a replica of the Mayflower that came in 1620 and remained here until 1621 spending the winter in Plymouth Harbor. We have people there in character as the sailors and the passengers who came in 1621 who are waiting to go ashore or go back to England. We also have people who are what we call third person who can talk about the Mayflower II which actually came in 1957 crossing the Atlantic under sail, and can fill you in on the last 400 years of Plymouth Harbor which has had a lot of history.
  2. If you come to our main campus two miles south of there you will find the 1627 Village a year chosen because we have a good list of who was there then. It’s before the town broke up and spread all out over the place.

We also have nearby a Wampanoag Homesite which shows the traditional ways of the Wampanoag people who were here and greeted the people who came in 1620.

What I like about our 1627 exhibit, that’s where I have spent most of my career, is that every day is different because every day is the day that it would have been in 1627. So if you come in April we’re planting corn, it’s springtime. But if you come now the corn has been harvested.

I had a woman once who came at Thanksgiving who said “you had beautiful corn growing here the last time I came.” Well the last time she came had been in July and the corn is very beautiful in July, but it’s harvested and the corn field is pretty desolate looking right now. Especially now with the high winds blowing from the nor’easter. It’s pretty bare and nasty looking because the corn is all harvested.

So we really do the work and sort of go through the seasons.

Travel New England: If there is such a thing, what is a typical day for you?

Kathleen Wall: For me, I don’t have a typical day. I haven’t had a typical day in a long time. For the people on site a typical day… Right now we have lots of school children who come in and they have their questions that have to be answered before they go back to school. They want to know about the Pilgrims in conjunction with Thanksgiving. They don’t seem to know that Plymouth Colony lasted more than one harvest; that in fact Plymouth Colony has a history to 1692, and the Town of Plymouth is still here. That’s a 400 year-old history, and there is a history that is even older than that and that’s the history of the Wampanoag people who lived in the same place, who continue to live here, who are still our neighbors. There’s just so much that goes on.

Right now it’s November and people think of Thanksgiving and it’s lovely and romantic and Pilgrims and Thanksgiving have been together since the 19th century, maybe a little bit earlier.

In 1621 the harvest was a good harvest if their accounts of what their yield was are at all accurate. It was the first time they had grown maize. English people in England weren’t growing that. They grew wheat and rye and barley and oats and they came to New England and they grew maize and they had a really good harvest. They knew they had bread and porrage for the year ahead, and they celebrated that harvest and 90 native men showed up with Massasoit who was their leader who sent several of his men out to bring back five deer which was a great gift that he gave to several of the men in town. For the English venison also has a very noble tradition and it is the sort of gift that means a lot more than just giving, it’s not just dinner, it’s reserved for nobility and gentlemen. It’s not the sort of thing that ordinary people would have unless someone of noble birth gave it to them. You can’t buy venison in England in the early 17th century.

So this was an incredible meeting of peoples. They celebrated for three days. That’s a lot of celebration. We have one big meal, they had three days of meals.

Travel New England: I don’t know if most people know that. That the original Thanksgiving lasted for three days.

…turkeys weren’t the only bird. There were ducks, and there were geese, and there were probably passenger pigeons, and there were quail, and there might have been little shore birds that they hardly knew the names of.

Kathleen Wall: Yeah, and there is this lovely image of a giant turkey coming to the table. I love turkey and they had really large turkeys in New England. They say 30 and 40 pound turkeys – which are old turkeys and probably not the best things to roast but turkeys weren’t the only bird. There were ducks, and there were geese, and there were probably passenger pigeons, and there were quail, and there might have been little shore birds that they hardly knew the names of. So it wasn’t just one big bird. It was lots of different birds, and fish, cod fish, and eels, and maybe some shellfish as well which is always good to fill in the empty places.

It’s really meat centric for the English. That was their idea of a really good feast.

They didn’t have a mill in Plymouth in 1621 so grinding corn for flour for bread or pastry is really difficult and most of the flour they had was corn meal so that’s good porridge, that’s grits or polenta depending on your cultural background. It’s not pastry. It’s not cake.

Travel New England: They actually had an incredibly diverse meal.

I think they ate very well. They referred to themselves as partakers of plenty.

Kathleen Wall: I think they ate very well. They referred to themselves as partakers of plenty. That is their self-description. I don’t think they were exaggerating.

By the following year three more ships of people had come over without provisions. That wonderful harvest which they reckon at a peck of meal per week for each person, and a peck is a quarter of a bushel which is a very generous allotment – more than many people in England would expect to have, by February of that following year they had a quarter pound of bread a day. So they go from over two pounds of meal per day to a quarter pound of bread a day. That’s a huge difference. So things got worse afterwards as more people without provisions came over.

Travel New England: Interesting.

Kathleen Wall: One of the things they commented upon was how empty places were. The native populations had been decimated by a plague several years before. It was two days between Plymouth and the next nearest native town which is Pokonket. There was nobody living for two days. Even in the summer the closest native camp to them was eight hours away. So they perceived the country as being empty.

When they landed on Cape Cod in 1620 the people of the Mayflower went ashore to explore and they saw ground that had been harvested recently. Anyone improving common ground you cannot just go in and take over. So part of the reason they don’t settle on Cape Cod is it is either forested or being tended by someone else.

Plymouth had been abandoned because it was one of the towns that had been stricken with plague so that was fallow ground. Good farmers know when ground has been abandoned.

Travel New England: Talk to us a little about the Thanksgiving dinners that you prepare at Plimoth Plantation?

We do seve different dinners that we have available in our modern facilities, though you will not see them in our 1627 village because in a harvest celebration you celebrate the harvest so Thanksgiving day is not a holiday for them.

Kathleen Wall: We do seve different dinners that we have available in our modern facilities, though you will not see them in our 1627 village because in a harvest celebration you celebrate the harvest so Thanksgiving day is not a holiday for them.

We have what we call the All American Thanksgiving which is the Thanksgiving with the mashed potatoes, and the gravy, and the stuffing and the apple pie that everyone expects. We also have out 1627 harvest dinner which includes things like roast pork, pottage of cabbage, and a pudding of Indian corn which is essentially a polenta dish. So we have a variety of dinners that are available.

Travel New England: The 1627 dinner sounds like it is at least somewhat more authentic to the time?

Kathleen Wall: The 1627 food is all prepared from 17th century recipes. All of the food that is on the table is food that would have been available in Plymouth Colony in 1627. There are Pilgrims from 1627 who travel forward in time to be with you at the meal. They do not use forks at that meal so you get to eat with your fingers because forks were not that common in 1627 or even in 1657 – so more spoons and fingers to eat with.

Travel New England: Interesting. I don’t think I knew that.

Kathleen Wall: Even people who know it when they are confronted with it tend to use their spoon like a fork which doesn’t work out that well. So sometimes you just have to pick it up with your fingers, and it’s okay. Children get that right away. I feel like I untrain them of everything their parents have taught them about good manners.

Travel New England: How long have you been working at Plimoth Plantation?

Kathleen Wall: I came to Plimoth Plantation in 1980 for ten weeks and the joke is my ten weeks isn’t up yet.

Travel New England: You must really love it.

Kathleen Wall: I came for seasonal employment. I had another job in the winter. I didn’t think I would be coming back. Things didn’t work out. I came for the summer. I worked with the education department. I’ve worked with the wardrobe department and I worked in the farm department and so the background in all of those sorts of things led me to food and here I am.

Travel New England: So do you do a lot of research on the food?

Kathleen Wall: Yes I do. Foodways tackles things from a lot of different angles so it’s not just the history. Our sources are William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and another Volume called Mourt’s Relation that were written in Plymouth Colony in the early years. They were like there’s no food in here. Well there’s nothing but food in there. They talk about what they find. They talk about what they eat. They write about things they don’t eat and in a year when there is not a lot of corn they write about all of the other stuff that they have.

Then you start looking at cook books and you start seeing patterns. You don’t just look at one cook book, but lots of them to see what are the things they are mentioning, what are the things they are not mentioning. Then I look at plays. I look at paintings. I look at archeology. I look at everything. I have friends in all different disciplines. I love anthropologists and archeologists. Then I just sort of tie it all together.

Sometimes when were are doing this we go “oh, that’s what they mean by that”. We get to sort of uncover some of the secrets of the past.

Travel New England: How easy are the recipes to come by from that time period?

Kathleen Wall: God bless the Internet. They have never been easier to come by. You can see real patterns of cook book authors pillaging from one another. Certain recipes show up and you wonder is this because everybody always makes it or nobody makes it but it’s a recipe that makes you a legitimate cookbook.

You see real patterns in terms of what they are using and how they are using things within the cookbook and then across the board over several cookbooks.

The language can be a little hard to understand. Sometimes the recipe says a dish of a chicken with sorrel sauce and then it tells you how to make the sorrel sauce but not how to cook the chicken. You don’t know is it a roasted chicken, is it a boiled chicken, is it a big chicken. You have to say they say chicken up above so I need to put a chicken in here somewhere. Sometimes they assume you know what you are doing and we don’t.

Travel New England: To them it was probably evident how you would prepare the chicken.

Kathleen Wall: Well I think so it’s like you know how to do this so I’m just giving you five more suggestions.

Travel New England: These cookbooks come from that time?

Kathleen Wall: Yes. There was a huge explosion of cookbooks written in England at the 17th century. Some of the come in different editions. Some of them even have changes with different additions so that’s always interesting to note too – what gets pulled out, what gets put in. Some of them blatantly use other recipes. Whole pages from one cookbook show up in another with the same punctuation and misspellings.

Travel New England: Was it your task to plan what the 1627 harvest dinner was like?

Last March we piloted a beer program with Mayflower Brewery so we created a meal with 17th century food to go with their beer. I’m really looking forward to doing that again. That was a lot of fun.

Kathleen Wall: We’ve been doing that for quite a while. I do work with our catering service. We do a variety of different meals. Sometimes there are new things available that we want to take advantage of or there are new trends in eating. Last March we piloted a beer program with Mayflower Brewery so we created a meal with 17th century food to go with their beer. I’m really looking forward to doing that again. That was a lot of fun.

Travel New England: Did they attempt to make 17th century beer?

Kathleen Wall: Not really. 17 century beer and methods depended a little on acts of God and goodwill. They even referred to yeast as God’s goodness. sSo it was a little mystery as to how it worked out well.

Travel New England: For them yeast would have had to been wild.

Kathleen Wall: Absolutely. If you consistently brew in the same place you develop good strains of yeast but something like a hot day can throw everything out of whack. So there is more inconsistency.

Travel New England: Do you find that you prepare this food for yourself at home?

Kathleen Wall: There are some dishes that I do. I have to tell you that cooking in 1627 was different. We cook over open wood fires and that creates such a distinctive flavor that it tastes different when you take it home.

Sometimes I have to test recipes for the catering for how can I make this taste good at home too.

Travel New England: Does catering cook over wood fires?

Kathleen Wall: No they do not. They are using modern equipment in a modern kitchen. So it does taste different. I think the smoke might be overwhelming for people who don’t work in it all day long.

That’s the other thing. When you cook over fire you breath fire all day.

Travel New England: So the meats would have a very smoky flavor to them all though they are not per se smoked.

Kathleen Wall: It’s not that you’d notice it so much when you are eating it but when you take something from the site away from the site to taste it you notice it later. I think it is because you don’t have all that smoke scent in the house.

People come in and say “what’s that smell” and sometimes it’s the animals because they just walked past the cows and sometimes it’s just the smoke of the fire even if it’s not a smoky fire it’s a very distinct odor.

It’s interesting to me that there’s no smoked bacon. Bacon is salted in the first half of the 17th century throughout New England up until the 18th century. It’s not until the late 18th century and 19th century that they start smoking bacon because if you have fires all the time you don’t notice that but when you start having wood stoves you truly miss it.

Travel New England: When you cook food over the fire do you eat it right then and there? Do you serve it to people?

Kathleen Wall: Our foodways program cooking is part of our exhibit. So we cook in the morning and for the staff. Nobody is required to eat the food they just say that they do. A lot of our people make it a point to eat the food though. They really like the food. So you can come in and see us eating. I can’t share with you because there are certain board of health issues about preparing food in front of thousands of people over an open fire.

On my blog Pilgrim Seasonings I like to provide the recipes of the food that we’re cooking so that if people do want to dry it at home they have that option.

A lot of it does translate very well to a modern kitchen.

Travel New England: As part of displaying living history do the people who work at Plimoth Plantation actually sit down to meals while people are visiting?

Kathleen Wall: Yes, and they have to exhibit good 17th century manners. They have to set the table in a prescribed way. We actually teach 17th century table manners which are in some ways stricter than modern table manners.

Travel New England: I can see where your experience of Plimoth Plantation is very different depending on what time of day you are visiting.

Kathleen Wall: Oh, absolutely, and that’s why I say it’s a new exhibit every day because there is always something different.

Travel New England: When roasting over a fire did they hang the meat from a string so that it would twirl?

Kathleen Wall: I haven’t found that this early. It was mostly put on a spit in front of the fire that they would have to turn.

Travel New England: What do you find the most rewarding about the work that you do for Plimoth Plantation?

Kathleen Wall: I think it’s making connections. Cooking over an open fire may seem pretty primitive and stark but there are still so many people in the world who still cook like that. They come in and say not only did I do that when I was young, you have people who come in in their 80s who say that, but I’ve had people come in their 30s who say this is what I grew up with until I moved to the city. It just surprises me how many places in the world still live like that.

But also the connection between the garden and the kitchen. You cook with what is actually in your garden. So weather that changes quickly like a sudden freeze really dictates what you are gong to use right away that you might have had for longer if the weather had been milder for another week or two.

When you grow your food what you worry about is a little different.

Travel New England: Getting back to Thanksgiving, how much turkey do you serve at Thanksgiving time?

Our chef does close to 5,000 turkey dinners during the month of Thanksgiving.

Kathleen Wall: Our chef does close to 5,000 turkey dinners during the month of Thanksgiving.

Travel New England: Thank you very much. This has been fantastic.

Kathleen Wall: Your welcome.

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