Puritan Food Habits & Religion

Puritan Pilgrims lived in simple houses, but ate well.
... Michael Springer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When you think of 17th-Century Puritans, you might think of plain clothing and drab church services. And although you'd be accurate, it would be a mistake to think that the Puritan religion restricted its adherents from enjoying food and the fruits of their labor. Not only did the Puritans enjoy their food, they evidently savored it.

1 Puritan Religion

After fleeing England and landing in North America, the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the area of what we know today as Boston. They did their best to keep their worship free from any vestige of the Catholic Church and to strictly follow Bible teachings, sometimes taking matters to the extreme, such as by avoiding music almost completely. They were bona fide Protestants who followed the austere teachings of reformer John Calvin, a man who taught the doctrines of predestination and fiery hell.

2 Beliefs on Food

The severity and seriousness in the Puritan religion put limits on how they viewed the pleasures of life. For the most part, they were conservative, condemning drunkenness and gluttony. But they didn't despise food. The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson wrote in his sermon "Man's Chief End is to Glorify God" that God "gives us health, which is the sauce to sweeten our life; and food, which is the oil that nourishes the lamp of life. If all we receive is from his bounty, is it not reasonable we should glorify him?"

3 Eating Habits

One prime example of the Puritans' habit of savoring food is what we know now as the Thanksgiving meal. At the very first "Thanksgiving" -- a festival -- the Puritans consumed and enjoyed their food as the "oil that nourishes the lamp," including eel, oysters, mussels, lobster, sweet grapes, strawberries, plums and a host of herbs and greens. And according to religion scholar Stephen Prothero, after funeral ceremonies, the Puritans put on lavish dinners that included not just loads of food but also lots of drink -- alcohol.

4 Culinary Comparison

In fact, authors John and Karen Hess wrote in their book "The Taste of America" that the idea that any blandness in American food culture has its roots in early Puritanism is pure myth. Actually, say the Hesses, the Puritans ate just as well -- if not better -- as American foodies do today, preparing and eating food enriched by African and European styles. Food for the Puritans, therefore, was a welcome pleasure -- even a necessary one. The Hesses concluded: "“It would seem... that the various more or less Calvinist strains of our society adopted the sensual pleasures of the table as a subliminal replacement for the other joys that they abjured.”

Aaron Charles began writing about "pragmatic art" in 2006 for an online arts journal based in Minneapolis, Minn. After working for telecom giant Comcast and traveling to Oregon, he's written business and technology articles for both online and print publications, including Salon.com and "The Portland Upside."