In 1980, Kathleen Wall landed a 10-week, seasonal job working in costume at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth. She’s still playing a Pilgrim today. “I have sort of become the guest who came to dinner and didn’t go away,” says the Pembroke native. Twelve years ago, Wall took over as the Colonial Foodways Culinarian, overseeing the food exhibits in which visitors step into Pilgrims’ homes, where there’s often a live fire to cook dinner. Health Department restrictions say visitors can’t sample the food they watch being cooked, but they receive lessons in how the Pilgrims ate.
Q. What kinds of skills are necessary to work in Colonial Foodways?
A. Well, we cook over an open fire so you have to be aware of fire. It’s essentially an exhibit for the general public, so there are people coming in and asking questions. You have to be able to talk and work at the same time. And then you have to read some really weird recipes that have hardly any recipe in them, with words that don’t seem to make any sense — unless you say them out loud in a group of people and somebody goes, “Wait, could that be rice?”
Q. Does cooking over the open flame give the food a different taste?
A. When you’re cooking over fire, you taste the food and it tastes great because you season it to your own taste. And that’s the instruction in the 17th century — always season to your own taste — which is very useful. Then, if you try to take it home and eat it somewhere else, it tastes not so great, and I can’t explain it. The smoke is definitely a flavor component, but you don’t notice it when you’re there with the fire. But when you go away from the fire you definitely notice it.
Q. So you eat what you cook during the exhibits?
A. You’re allowed to eat what you make [though visitors are not]; you’re not required to eat what you make. I was a vegetarian when I started here. There’s a lot of meat in a Pilgrim’s diet. I discovered I don’t mind eating animals that I know how they were raised ; that was the part about the meat that bothered me. Actually raising animals and butchering them, which is something else I learned to do here, brought me back to bacon.
Q. What else did Pilgrims eat?
A. Everyone thinks they only had one meal and that was Thanksgiving and that was turkey and almost nothing else. They came to Plymouth to fish. I’m unhappy to report that there was no more money in it for them in 1627 than there has been for local fishermen. But they weren’t just fishermen. They grew corn, so they had maize, which was a new grain for them; they used it for their porridge. They had water to drink, though they would have preferred beer, but barley didn’t grow terribly well here. They had gardens for things like turnips, onions, garlic, carrots, parsley, sage, and thyme. They had all the abundant fruit that was available in New England: strawberries in June, gooseberries, raspberries, blueberries, which they called bilberries or whortleberries. There were wild grapes and chestnuts. There were all sorts of things they could gather and there were ducks, geese, swans, cranes. Captain [Myles] Standish even writes about how he shoots an eagle. So they ate an eagle in 1620. When you start looking through the sources, you see they eat just about everything that crosses their path.
Q. Of course, for the exhibit, you can’t stew an eagle.
A. No, the eagle thing horrified me at first. I was like, they can’t possibly mean that. We were seeing eagles here just last week, but we don’t eat them. The things that aren’t available to us aren’t available. Passenger pigeons: enormously popular, on their tables all the time, you eat them by the two hundreds, you take hundreds of these birds at a time. They’re extinct so they’re really, really hard for us to exhibit.
Q. What’s the question from visitors you get asked most at Plimoth Plantation?
A. It’s “Do you really live here?” I’ve decided when I sit down to write my memoirs that’s what it’s going to be called: “Do You Really Live Here? My Life as a Pilgrim.”
On Feb. 2, Kathleen Wall will run the Hardcore Hearth Cooking program ($199, including food) from 8 a.m.- 4 p.m. at Plimoth Plantation. For more information, go to www.plimoth.org.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.