My So-Called Pilgrim Life

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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

Baking bread is like riding a bicycle

May 6th, 2009 by admin

One of the common themes throughout Good News from New England is the lack of food in 1621 and 1622. The first lack – not the heralded First Winter – is the second winter . The second ship that comes, the Fortune , arrives in Novemeber 1621 without sufficent supply. The harvest had come in earlier and William Bradford (back to Of Plymouth Plantation) and reckons it at a peck of meal per man a week. That works out to 2.28 pounds of grain per day. A pound of bread and a good helping of porriage “to fill in the chinks”. That and fish or venison, some pork or wildfowl, some cabbages and turnips, good spring water to drink – not the daintiest of diets, but these are hardworking men (and they’re mostly men, and young men at that) is certainly good enough to write home about. The arrival of the Fortune puts them at half rations , which works out to 8 pounds of meal a week or 1.14 pounds or 18 ounces per day. But several more ships come to Plymouth that winter, and they all have people who need to be fed, so by February “…it rose but to a quarter pound of bread a day to each person…” This put the weekly total at 1.75 pounds. That’s less bread in a week then they had in a day back in October. They still have pork, and venison and wild fowl and fish, but bread is a significant source of  calories for them and that’s gone.

So what is this bread that’s so important to them? There aren’t a whole lot of recipes for bread. And you can be all ‘oldie timie’ and call them receipts, which means the same thing. The thing it means is written down. This is how baking bread is like riding a bicycle. How many of you learned to ride a bike from reading about it? If you did, I really want to hear from you. But most of you probably knew big kids who had bike and you wanted to be just like them, and finally, someone relented and let you sit on the seat and held on to you while they pushed you around, and then, when your feet reached the pedels, you could start to move yourself and eventually, you were riding all by yourself, no one holding on, no training wheels. You proably also fell down a few times, maybe crashed into something or someone, all part of the learning curve. Even if you haven’t been on a bike for years, you could hop back on and give it a spin.

Bread is easy. It’s flour and water and yeast and salt. Add time and heat and you have bread. Nothing simpler. In the last year there’s been a movement for no-knead bread, where you mix up the flour, salt, water and yeast and put the dough in the fridge to rise (it also hydrates and then there’s the enzyme actions), which in many ways isn’t different the  seventeenth century way. What makes the difference in differernt kinds of bread is the kind of flour and how much water and what you want it to be when it comes out of the oven…

My timer’s going off, got to go check the bread I’ve put in the oven…


Colonial Foodways Culinarian

2 Responses to “Baking bread is like riding a bicycle”

  1. John Montague says:

    Thanks for the encouragement on bread making. For me, it would take alot of trial and error to learn to “ride that bike.”

  2. KMW says:

    I’ll post some bread references – with directions – soon (she says, hopefully) but check out They’ll have you make a big batch of the dough, put it in the fridge overnight, scoop out a ball and bake it when you need (or want)it. What’s interesting about this technique is that Gervase Markham uses a very similar procedure in 1617. He bakes all his bread at once, because that’s what more convenient for him, which it would be if you had to make a fire to heat the whole oven.

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