Americans always think of the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving, but the first English settlers in Plymouth, Massachusetts ate a far more extensive diet than cranberry sauce and turkey. The Plimoth Colony Cook Book, published in 1957 by the Plymouth Antiquarian Society, explains exactly how the Pilgrims sustained themselves after their legendary Mayflower ship landed in December, 1620. By the summer of 1621, they were gathering fruit from the woods and meadows near Plymouth Bay. Some went into the recipe for blueberry cake that I tried.
On the Mayflower, the Pilgrims brought provisions including oatmeal, dried peas, prunes, raisins, bacon, salt pork, turnips, cabbage, onions, and parsnips. Once these ran out, Native Americans showed them hunting, fishing, and planting methods. To get through their first winter, and the years that followed, the settlers adapted English recipes to American ingredients. Corn and cranberries, two crops not grown in Europe, soon proved extremely useful.
The settlers found wild blueberries for their cakes, though William Wood wrote of a wider assortment of berries in New England’s Prospect in 1634. “There is gooseberries, bilberries, treakleberries, hustleberries, and currants, which being dried in the sun are a little inferior to those that our grocers sell in England.” So much for an accommodating attitude! Identification for treakleberries, bilberries, and hustleberries may be lost to history, but the good folks at the Plymouth Antiquarian Society did adapt this cake recipe to modern ovens and cooking methods. The sturdy but still tender cake keeps the berries from sinking to the bottom. I cut the cake into squares so I could admire the contrast between the golden cake and purplish berries.
Blueberry Cake (circa 1630)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
2 cups blueberries
- Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a bowl, Beat the sugar and eggs with a fork or a whisk (there were no electric beaters in the 17th century).
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
- Add the flour mixture to the sugar and egg mixture. Stir in the butter and milk.
- Stir in the blueberries and pour the batter into the prepared pan.
- Bake 30-35 minutes, until golden on top and the cake springs back lightly when gently pressed. Cool before cutting into squares and serving.