The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.


An Appreciation of Plimoth Plantation & James Deetz

An appreciation of Plimoth Plantation and an admired professor, or James Deetz and the rise of interdisciplinary studies.

Plimoth Plantation is the ‘living museum’ of earliest New England. At a glance it may look something like a shallow theme park, but there is depth here too; docents may dress in period costume and speak archaic English, but they are sticklers and ‘inhabit’ the lives of the seventeenth century people they portray. They also cook the foods of early New England.

Their English is based on the Elizabethan dialects that Martyn Wakelin found during the course of his linguistic research in England. The players will not leave role, even if goaded to do so. Especially for children, the first experience of the plantation conveys the shock of the new, the notions that the past is elusive and that history can thrill.

Plimoth, however, is more than a stage for reenactors. Since its foundation in 1947, the museum has undertaken a series of important archaeological excavations in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. For years the plantation enjoyed a dynamic association with the great James Deetz; he supervised his lucky students in conducting over a dozen of the digs. Plimoth Plantation was his perfect partner.

One of the archaeological anthropology courses that he taught at Brown University was known to generations of undergraduates as ‘Digging with Deetz.’ It was an exhilarating hybrid of the intellectual and practical. Deetz himself was a kindly and charismatic as well as learned man, a superb lecturer with a twinkling sense of humor. Deetz was ‘hands on’ as well; he happily got down to the digging alongside his colleagues and students. There was not a shred of pretense or pomposity. His department also threw the best parties.

Deetz has been called the founder of a new discipline, historical archaeology, but it would be more accurate to consider him the harbinger of interdisciplinary studies. He was ahead of his time in advocating the interplay of historical and anthropological inquiry to create a better understanding of the past, and was considerably less hidebound and more open-minded than most of his contemporaries in the historical profession for his willingness to respect the methodology of the rival discipline. This approach was revolutionary in its way, for while others professed to accept the notion, few actually embraced it.

Pedagogical developments have vindicated Deetz. Not only has his explication of the approach, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, become a classic and remained in print as required reading, but interdisciplinary study in an expanded context has become the catchphrase of entire curricula at, for example, Bowdoin College and elsewhere. It also would be hard to imagine the current, and laudable, fashion for ‘Atlantic Studies’ within the historical profession without him.

Deetz gave his students a theoretical and historical framework, then set them loose in teams to design their own projects. A number of his Brown students served as docents for Plimoth. Classroom texts from his introductory course included his own invaluable primer, Invitation To Archaeology; projects included the collection of garbage from several unsuspecting households on the East Side of Providence, its analysis and the subsequent reconstruction of the values and lifestyles of the various inhabitants.

Archaeologists excavating sites from any era prize trashpits for the ordinariness of their contents; you threw away the everyday, so that the resulting artifacts can help to create a reasonably accurate reconstruction of actual lives. As Deetz noted, writers inevitably introduce their own bias, however inadvertent or laudable, into their work, but the mundane material of daily life is immutable. It has no point of view.

Privies doubled as trashpits before the advent of the toilet, but fortunately the passage of time dehydrated and sanitized the contents before the diggers got to them. The contemporaneous ‘excavation’ of garbage cans and recycling bins unfortunately confers no such advantage on the aspiring anthropologist. The Editor got the job of classifying wet trash by default (her teammates refused to contemplate the task) but the undertaking was worthwhile in reconstructing the lives of our subjects. All of this was, of course, done before the Kissinger controversy rendered the clandestine collation of garbage illegal.

You can tell a frightening amount about someone in a consumer culture from his refuse. Doctors apparently tended to drink a lot of vodka, indulge in surprisingly slack eating habits and stiff their creditors; the sexual revolution on campus apparently was real; and admired professors apparently ate better and wasted comparatively less food than the doctors.

Plimoth has studied artifacts and building footprints to construct two settlements frozen in 1627, including a Wampanoag village that Deetz began to reconstruct during 1972, before the study of native American culture had become the academic industry that it is today. The chosen date is no coincidence but rather confers two distinct advantages; “it is the most fully documented year in the colony’s first decade” and by then “had become largely self sufficient.” (“Yeoman Foodways” 107) Mayflower II, a reproduction of the ship that carried the original English settlers in 1620, sailed from England to join the museum upon the opening of the current plantation site in 1957.

Verisimilitude at Plimoth does not end with its docents. Every physical manifestation of the villages looks authentic, because the Plimoth technology team has painstakingly constructed everything there using seventeenth century techniques and tools patterened by the team from appropriate artifacts. As the plantation’s humane website,, explains, “[u]nlike typical museums, Plimoth Plantation does not collect relics to exhibit. Instead, we collect information to recreate everyday life in the 17th century.” This is a little misleading, but only because the plantation does display artifacts, from Wampanoag, colonial and maritime sources, in a conventional museum setting outside of the recreated settlements.

The timbers of houses look like new because they are new. Furniture is not worn by centuries of use, so it looks to us like it did to the settlers themselves. As research has progressed, Plimoth has demolished and rebuilt structures that faithfully reflect newfound archaeological and printed evidence. Brick chimneys therefore are gone, replaced by wattle and daub; glass was scarcer than expected so windows have been changed. Probate inventories indicate that the recreated houses at Plimoth initially were overfurnished, so excess items have been removed. The plantation is a laboratory.

All of this is anthropology at its best, because Plimoth maintains a rigorous standard of scholarship while remaining an accessible, even delightful experience for the general public. Thus, for example, the museum does not call its settlers ‘Pilgrims’ because the settlers did not describe themselves that way and their contemporaries did not apply the term to them, but its website explains without condescension how the label eventually stuck. Plimoth is neither anachronistic nor elitist.

Sustenance was central to the rhythm of “everyday life” so docents cook. As the plantation’s Research Librarian has written, at Plimoth a “visitor’s experience is largely composed of daily household tasks, in which, as was the case in 1627, foodways play the central role.” (“Yeoman Foodways” 106)

To reconstruct the diet of the early settlers, Plimoth has conducted research involving not only English, but also Dutch, printed sources; the settlers had emigrated to Leiden before their errand into the wilderness. Docent cooks have mastered seventeenth century methods of preparing authentic dishes that range from stewed fish heads to roast duck and sweet custards. Again, the chosen emphasis is historically sound, because as Deetz has explained,

“The tiny ship that dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor in the December cold of 1620 carried a precious cargo. Its passengers, English emigrants... brought with them a blueprint--in their minds--for recreating the culture they left behind.... ” (cited in “Yeoman Foodways” 111)

During their first years in North America, however, these colonists normally obsessed with customary foodways needed to adopt and adapt native foods to their own traditional methods out of necessity. It almost seems counterintuitive to observe that the earliest settlers created a more innovative cuisine than the one that their descendants developed, but harsh conditions and an alien climate had precluded the production of European staples during the first growing seasons in the New World. Without wheat and ‘pease’ the forebears turned to corn, however unwillingly, and according to contemporaneous visitors leaned heavily on such alien ingredients as beans and squash for everyday sustenance. By cooking these foods onsite daily, the museum recognizes these cultural currents. It also mounts a series of dinners featuring reasonably authentic foods at its modern facilities: Check online for date, time and price.

Plimoth Plantation aims its website at the novice rather than scholar in an effort to lure the uninitiated to visit the site; good ideas, both the effort and a visit. In addition to explaining the purpose of the enterprise, the site includes a number of essays written for a general audience, including four brisk pieces focused on seventeenth century New England foods. Each one includes a simple recipe set in its historical context. We would like to see more culinary writing online, but nonetheless the website is a good place for the culinary adventurer to start exploring seventeenth century foodways.

Romanticized tableau of John and Priscilla Alden circa 1910

The plantation has published a small and lovely book that discusses seventeenth century English and New England foodways, examines the mythic lore of Thanksgiving and traces the evolution of the holiday table. It is Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and, in a gesture typical of the institution's collaborative tradition, ‘Plimoth Plantation.’ Acknowledgements are generous.

The text also is typical of the Plimoth ethic: The writing is lively and accessible but never patronizing and the historiography is rigorous without pomposity. The recipes are wonderful, ranging from mussels seethed in red wine vinegar (seventeenth century) and oyster stew (from Fanny Farmer) to Pavo Relleno con Moros (from Cuba) and Marlborough pudding (from 1796).

Colonial Plimoth never did celebrate Thanksgiving as we know it, and the plantation is brave enough to say so. The national holiday familiar to us would need to await the proclamation of President Lincoln in 1864 but that, as they say, is another story.

Our version of one recipe that appears in both the website and book, for stewed pompion, the seventeenth century rendition of ‘pumpkin,’ appears in the practical, along with a bfia version of seethed mussels.

Bibliographical notes:

Parenthetical citations to “Yeoman Foodways” in this essay refer to James K. Baker, “Yeoman Foodways” from Peter Benes (ed.), Foodways in the Northeast: The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1982 (Boston 1984)

A typically lucid and engaging description by Deetz of Plimoth Plantation’s evolution and transformation from 1947 until the end of the century appears in The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony cowritten with his wife Patricia Scott Deetz (New York 2000)