You’ve got a burning question: “What kind of tea did the Pilgrims and Native People drink at the first Thanksgiving?”
I’m here to help. Or at least, I tried. The answer was both frustrating and educational.
This fall I found myself in Plymouth, Mass., the very spot where those Pilgrims set foot in the Americas to make a go of it. Of course, I had to go over to the Plimoth Plantation (yeah, it’s spelled like that) to see a re-creation of a Wampanoag Homesite (the tribe of the Native People who were living in the area back in 1620), and the village of the English colonists, set up to look like it would have in 1627. “Ooh,” I say to myself. “English people drink a lot of tea. I’m going to ask them all about it. This will be a great blog post.”
Some rules about Plimoth Plantation: The Native People (as they prefer to be called) are actual Native People. They’ll show you how their ancestors wove a basket, how to create a boat out of an enormous tree trunk, and they talk about their ancestors from the point of view of right now. In other words, they might stand there wearing animal pelts, but they’re not pretending to live in 1627. They talk in the past tense about their people, and admit they go home and put on 21st century clothes (not necessarily warmer than deer skin, by the way).
Things are different in the 1627 English Village, which is populated by highly trained role players. These people are dressed like the colonists would have been in 1627, and they speak in 17th century English dialects. They don’t break character.
I knew this about Plimoth Plantation before I entered. As I glanced at the employee parking lot on the way in, I told my husband I might ask a pilgrim which of them drives the Prius and how they like it. This sarcastic attitude would get me nowhere with the colonists, though.
The two women I chatted with in the Wampanoag Homesite were weaving some bags by hand, sitting near a fire where some delicious-looking duck soup was heating up, complete with floating cranberries. Oh yeah, they said, their ancestors drank tea. Mostly from plants, berries and roots — blueberry leaf, sassafras — and all had medicinal purposes. You wouldn’t just drink tea for fun, they said.
A good answer. I was satisfied.
In the English Village I encountered two women hauling manure around a garden. “What is this ‘tea?’” the first woman asked me, standing up straight next to her shovel, in her full-length dress. “Is it like beer?”
How do you explain tea to someone? “Uh, you pour hot water over it …” I stammered.
“Oh — an infusion,” she said. I’m nodding at her, so she tells me that it depends what kind of ailment you have. That’s how you pick your infusion. Melancholy? Try marjoram. Stomach upset? Have some spearmint. Thyme is useful, too.
“You don’t drink tea — I mean, infusions — just as a nice drink?” I asked.
She made a face. “Whatever for?”
I clenched my jaw, thinking up ways I can convince her she knows all about tea. But in short order, I give up. I’m supposed to be on vacation.
Tea, says Wikipedia, got to the Dutch in the early 1600s, and while it was known in France by 1638, it wasn’t imported in Britain until the 1660s. Score one for the colonists. They really didn’t know anything about tea (or what we think of as tea, from the leaves and buds of the Camellia sinensis plant) back in 1627. I feel silly.
Those role players make up a “living history” exhibit, explains my friend Mike from the Aspen Historical Society. It directly appeals to our senses, giving us an experience that’s as close as possible to the real thing.
“I think it can be effective,” Mike says. “It brings history to life when it’s done correctly. It’s a way to experience the past, instead of reading about it.”
Okay, Pilgrims, you got me. No tea for you. I may have found it easier to talk to the Native People, but I did learn something from the colonists. Now go experience some two leaves and a bud, instead of just reading about it. And tell me, which one of our infusions would boost my humility?