I Lived Like It Was the 1600s to Understand the Meaning of Thanksgiving
Killing turkeys by hand, pissing in a pot, drinking only alcohol, and eating terrible gruel made me understand what life was like back then, and why we celebrate holidays.
Photos by Sara Winston.
Growing up, my favorite holiday was Christmas. Then, when I got to be about ten years old, my parents revealed that Santa, and happiness more generally, was a cruel myth. Halloween reigned supreme from about the onset of double-digits to my mid-20s. Once I could no longer get away with trick-or-treating, I started marking my calendar in eager anticipation for when thinly applied face paint would act as an excuse to get fucked up on a random weekday. But by the time I started staring down the barrel of 30, what was once my least favorite holiday had become my favorite. Looking forward to eating as much food as physically possible—even if it's alongside the same duplicitous family members who originally lied to my face about Santa—is one of the few things that makes my life on Earth seem bearable now that I've become too old to believe in magic, beg for free candy, or endure crippling hangovers at work.
I'm apparently not alone. Millions of Americans travel across state lines in the lead-up to the third Thursday in November, and as the holiday season approached this year, I found myself questioning why. I wanted to believe it was for a reason more significant than pumpkin pie and parades, because the alternative—that oblivion-by-food is our only reprieve from endless suffering—was too dark to accept. Ultimately, I deigned to embark on a quest to see if I could make myself think of Thanksgiving as something deeply meaningful, or even profound. I understand, intellectually, that women had no autonomy over their bodies in the 1600s, and that sex was probably the only fun (some) people could have back then, but watching movies like The Witch (pronounced "the V-Vitch," by the way) taught me to believe that life was unspeakably bleak. How did people even think procreation was ethically acceptable, never mind find a reason to party? And why are we still carrying on the tradition of ringing in the fall harvest with friends and family nearly 400 years later? I decided the best way to answer these questions was to inhabit the likeness, and hopefully the mindset, of someone who had actually been on the Mayflower.
I would call up a handful of historians to help me construct a plan about how to pull off this admittedly stupid stunt the weekend before Thanksgiving. They would tell me how to eat, what to wear, and what stuff I wasn't allowed to do besides the obvious of not using electricity or plumbing. I ended up with an apartment misted in pee, a churning stomach, and hands covered in blood. I can't say I was totally surprised.
Before all that happened, I needed the right clothes. That led me to contact Ian Lycett-King, a hobbyist in the United Kingdom, an educator and re-enactor who hand-makes replica 17th century costumes with his wife, Caroline, and apparently has no qualms about sending his life's work to a literal stranger in another country after two emails. My public school education—the same one that skipped over the fact that our forebears were genocidal maniacs—led me to believe I was in for one of those cool hats with a buckle on it. But when the suitcase of what I would be wearing arrived, I pulled out what looked like an indistinguishable mass of cloth that the Lycett-Kings told me hadn't been washed in five to ten years.
Although I wanted my experiment to be as historically accurate as possible, I made peace with my first deviation from those self-imposed rules when I decided to inhabit the body of a tiny gender-neutral Pilgrim. It would be almost half a millennium before Celine Dion would debut her clothing line "for little humans with freedom of mind," but there was no way I would be wearing an extra-wide skirt that was thought to encourage child-bearing hips around (the non-colonial) Williamsburg. That meant I would be donning a shift and a doublet on top, breeches on the bottom, a lace bonnet on my head to make it classy, and two enormous shoes not assigned to a specific left or right foot.
After getting dressed for the day, I made a typical 17th century breakfast, which for Native Americans was something called nasaump. (The colonists ate stewed pumpkin—which they called "pompion"—at almost every meal, but the traveler who recorded the recipe also noted that it "provokes urine." Given that I would be using a chamber pot I bought on Amazon for the weekend, I decided to go for the Wampanoag dish.) Plus, it seemed like a good idea to acknowledge the experiences of people who weren't characters in The Crucible.
Anyway, nausamp is basically polenta made with blueberries. The fine folks who operate Plimoth Plantation, a historical museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, sent me some grits made with a reproduction 1636 grist mill so that it would be as historically accurate as possible. As I ate the strange, tasteless porridge, I began to sweat profusely, despite it being winter in New York. I felt like I was wearing the entire inventory of a Jo-Ann's Fabrics, because I basically was.
I was not allowed any coffee along with my sad breakfast gruel. When I spoke to Elizabeth Pearce, a historian who hosts a walking tour called Drink & Learn in New Orleans, she told me that the Pilgrims begged the captain of the Mayflower for some beer barrels when they arrived in Plymouth. Back in England, rivers were where the contents of chamber pots and the runoff from slaughterhouses ended up, and people just kind of concluded that all water made them ill. According to the story Pearce related, the captain initially told them, "No, not even if you were my father and you were sick"—he had to get his crew all the way back across the Atlantic, after all. But I guess he relented, because literature suggests that even though the waters in New England ended up being potable, the new additions to early 17th century America were essentially drinking ale from morning to night. One of the first things they built was a brewery.
Pearce had also said that, to approximate what life was like back then, I should mix equal parts O'Douls and Budweiser to make a low-ABV drink that I would consume as if it were water. But as it turns out, even when you're half-drunk, it's really hard to entertain yourself with the toys of the time. Of course I had the Geneva bible, because understanding theology was the reason that the Pilgrims even knew how to read in the first place. William Bradshaw, the elder of the Reform Church, also brought copies of The Prince by Machiavelli and Problems by Aristotle over with him on the Mayflower. All of this amounted to me playing a then-popular game called ball-and-cup for a few minutes, having the urge to Google a YouTube tutorial for how to actually get the ball in the cup, giving up after remembering that I couldn't use the internet, and then being stuck with a tabloid-sized version of the New Testament.
After hours of only being able to reade the strange byble to pass the tyme, I started to go slowly crazy. It's hard enough to parse Olde English while sober, never mind while only drinking ale. My comprehension was further crippled by the fact that I had to hold a tiny beeswax candle to see and was always on the verge of lighting myself on fire.
Sitting in dark silence for a whole second day would have been too much to bear. But luckily I had made other plans upstate. I was heading up to Dirty Dog Farm in Clinton Corners, New York, to help two guys who actually wear Carhartt overalls for their intended purpose harvest heritage turkeys for the season. Though there's some contention about whether or not turkey was actually present at the first Thanksgiving, it was undeniably a staple of the Pilgrims's diet. I wanted to kill one by hand, the way they would have done it back then, too.
Although I usually go to sleep at 3 AM on a Sunday morning, rather than wake up at that time, I had to do my schedule in reverse. Alex Cervenak, a history educator at the Plimoth Plantation, had told me that the settlers divided their nights into first and second sleeps, which led to a flurry of activity well before dawn.
"Some people would get up and go about the house," she told me about the reason people back then woke up so goddamn early. "Then you would go back to sleep and have a second-sleep closer to the morning. If you were a woman you might get up and start a fire, get that going to warm up the house and make something for breakfast."
"That was also the time to know their husband or wife," she continued, acknowledging the real reason people did this.
I did wake up at around 2 AM, although it wasn't because I'd planned to. My skiff, a.k.a. Pilgrim tall-T, was insanely uncomfortable on top of making me look like an insane ghost. So without the benefit of a second-sleep, I scuffled bleary-eyed into my kitchen, where I helped myself to a bowl of the previous day's breakfast gruel, which had congealed and caked to the corner of my stock pot like shellac. As it heated up on the stove, I also peed in my porcelain bowl, the contents of which I had to throw out the window.
I live in one of those big-city apartments with a picturesque view that consists solely of a brick wall, and I've never considered what happens in that area between my building and the one right next door. I finally looked down there for the first time before dumping a pot of piss onto a desiccated life-sized human doll. After realizing I've been apparently living above a place where murders go down, I was glad that, according to historical precedent, I was able to start drinking right away.
"You probably won’t even have a buzz because you’ll just be hydrating and sweating and working and not just sitting and letting all the alcohol accumulate," Pearce, the alcohol historian, had told me in the lead-up to my big weekend of living like a Pilgrim. "You're also not just sitting drinking one beer after another, you're drinking it the way you would drink a glass of water."
I felt strangely determined to prove her wrong, especially because I knew my day of hard labor would culminate in blood. The Pilgrims drank constantly, but they were never supposed to be visibly drunk. That didn't really become a problem until the rum trade started up with the Caribbean and hard liquor was imported, but the people who felt they were more extreme than the English Puritans apparently didn't think that blackout was a good look. Still, if I was going to have to face one of my biggest fears as a perpetually queasy person, I figured I would need to at least be pretty out of my mind.
When I pulled up at the driveway of Dirty Dog Farm, the first thing I saw was the killing post. It was impossible to miss. Either turkeys have brighter colored blood than humans, or the 40-degree weather was exacerbating its vibrancy, but I was shocked to see just how red it was. I shook hands with Jesse Warner, and his business partner, Josh Schwab (who I later found out, for full-disclosure, is the son of a VICE executive, despite my having cold-contacted them).
The two were covered in guts. Warner was in charge of carrying birds from the field—upside down so as to make them dizzy—sticking them in a metal cone, and slicing a pair of arteries in their necks. I'm not sure how I thought this would be less gruesome than it was, but it was far from an instantaneous process. The blood would spurt, and he would then crack the turkeys' necks by hand to help with the draining. Then came the part where the turkeys would violently spasm after their deaths.
Although the Pilgrims almost certainly just cleaved the whole neck off in one fell swoop, this process seemed more accurate to the time period I was learning about, since turkeys you can buy in the supermarket are processed in plants that streamline all the steps. Plus, I was told this made for a better-tasting bird because it didn't fill them up with adrenaline in their final moments.
After they died, the animals were boiled in water to loosen their feathers. Then they went in the Featherman, which is basically a bird blender, to pull out the plumes. Although I couldn't be positive that I wouldn't lose my nerve halfway through the actual slicing and cause unneeded suffering, I did opt to participate in the low-stakes steps. I gave a bird a hot bath and reached inside its still-warm body to pull out its stomach, gizzard, lungs, and heart. We hung out drinking beer for a few hours before I kind of got the idea: This was gross work, but I guess if I was starving to death I would have had just as few qualms about doing it as the professional farmers next to me did.
I originally had planned to come home from getting up-close-and-personal with the circle of life and make a turkey stew. As it turned out, that was an unappealing proposition, and I was bone-tired from having not slept the night before. So I did basically the only other thing I was allowed to do—crack open my giant, incomprehensible Bible and another Bud heavy.
In my chats with Peter Cooper Mancall, a historian at the University of Southern California, he stressed that the Pilgrims were extraordinarily preoccupied with the state of their souls. After collapsing into bed, I did some soul-searching myself. Living without my phone or computer for just a short while threw into relief just how much modernity revolves around distracting ourselves from existential questions and human interaction. Rather than contemplate the meaning of life, we prefer to endlessly scroll through Instagram and see other people present their best public versions of it. The Pilgrims were far more complex than the caricatures we think of them as today. These were people who had no entertainment options apart from spending time with each other and thinking about what happens after we die. Even though their heads were filled with what we now know to be absurdities, like the idea that a comet passing overhead would make you sick, they certainly had rich interior lives. Not to mention a sense of divine purpose, even if it included killing a bunch of people whose land you took over to build a brewery.
"They lived lives that might seem very hard by our standards, but they were normal to them and they found New England a good place to raise large families," Mancall had said. "And the ones who got these colonies going, the first generation or the migrants, did think, to borrow a phrase from The Blues Brothers, that they were on a mission from God. They were going to America to create new communities, a 'city on a hill,' as John Winthrop put it, and any sacrifices someone felt were likely worth it to achieve that goal."
My weekend of living like a Pilgrim was basically the worst hangover of all time. Instead of swaddling myself in blankets, I had to wear an itchy get-up that smelled and was full of dust. I couldn't have water or coffee. I had no delicious food to sop up the un-ending stream of Budweiser and O'Douls coursing through my body. That intensified the good things—a lot. When I finally had some brief company on Saturday after a long day of reading my incredibly obtuse theological tome and thinking about the profundity of the human spirit, I almost cried from happiness. Given that a life of extreme austerity makes even the most minor stimulation feel overwhelmingly great, it's impossible to imagine how tight a night of feasting and light boozing must have been for people who had just spent 66 days on a boat and then thought they were going to starve to death when they arrived in the New World.
Despite my seconds-long aversion to meat, my first post-experiment meal ended up being chicken wings. I already knew I was the kind of stereotypical virtue-signaling millennial who rails against Amazon but orders her chamber pots on Prime, though I guess I learned that I suck even more than I thought. And my initial thoughts about Thanksgiving—that it's just a manufactured break in the banality of existence—didn't really change as a result of my weekend of living as a Pilgrim. The only difference is that I now think there's something sort-of beautiful about that idea.
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