Meeting the Pilgrims

PLYMOUTH, Mass. -- Every Thanksgiving season, Holly and Irving Puffer take their four kids farther from home than any parents in America to have dinner with a relative -- back 378 years, across the ocean to England. The kids, who range from 4 to 13, look forward to their annual time travel. ``The food's really good,'' offers 11-year-old Jake Puffer.

So is the American history lesson the Puffer children get from their dinner companions -- the original Pilgrims, Puffer ancestor John Howland among them -- along with the multi-course 17th-century dinner that includes ``sallet of herbs,'' ``sops of spinach,'' ``turkey, sauce'd,'' ``Beef, Roast'd, Cider and cream-Apple tart'' here at Plimoth Plantation.

``If John Howland hadn't grabbed a line when he fell off the boat, we wouldn't be here,'' said Puffer, a Cape Cod oyster and clam farmer who made sure his family chatted up Howland at dinner. ``Coming here makes the kids feel they're part of history -- and they see how good they've got it now!''

Most families who come here to Plimoth (that's the way Gov. Bradford spelled it in his history of the colony) Plantation don't have Mayflower passengers on their family tree, of course. But they come around Thanksgiving for much the same reason -- to breathe life into the history lesson the kids invariably are getting in school this month. They're here for that up close and personal window into the long-gone past that only a museum like this, with costumed historical interpreters attuned to children, can provide.

It's perpetually 1627 here, the last year the Pilgrims lived in one settlement. Everyone speaks in Old English. The kids can wander the sandy pathways, in and out of the small, one-room thatched-roof houses, talking to the ``Pilgrims'' as they put a roof on a new house, tend their garden, cook dinner over the open hearth or feed the animals. Thanksgiving, one pilgrim tells us, was more about praying than about eating, with most of the day spent in church. The kids grimace at the thought.

Another confides she doesn't know exactly how old she is because her mother never wrote down the date of her birth. No birthdays? The kids shake their heads.

``They play the roles so wonderfully children really understand the history differently than from a book,'' observed Karen O'Toole, who was visiting from the Boston suburbs with her husband and two young sons. Head down to Hobbamock's Homesite -- he served as a Native American advisor to the Pilgrims -- and show the kids how the Wampanoag Indians lived when the Pilgrims arrived and how much they helped them.

Tour the replica of the Mayflower -- the ship is so small! -- and talk to the ``Pilgrims'' there about the hardships of the 66-day voyage and the first winter they faced here.

But stay for the special Harvest Dinner, offered just in October and November, and your family will leave with a new understanding of the grit that prompted the Pilgrims to come in the first place.

First, you have to time-travel back to England and the fall of 1620. The Pilgrims had reported that in Plymouth they ``received many kindnesses from some Christians there.'' No doubt, Plimoth Plantaion officials say, those kindnesses included food and hospitality. Though the modern dining room lacks the right ambience, the guests quickly get in the spirit of the evening, asking the Pilgrims questions, sharing big bowls of White Pot (rice pudding), ``Mussels Seeth'd with Parsley and Beer,'' ``a pottage of cabbage, leeks and onions,'' among other dishes. ``I love the food and the history,'' declares Peter Jastrzembski, a truck driver who has come with his wife and 12-year-old son.

The first thing the kids notice is that there are no forks -- folks ate with spoons and knives in those days. They put their napkins on their shoulders, not their laps.

And they piled all the food on one small pewter plate, dessert served right along with the rest of the meal -- the apple pie before the roast beef!

As everyone eats, the frustrated Pilgrims explain they've returned to England for the second time after The Speedwell, which had joined the Mayflower, began leaking.

``We were 300 miles past England when we had to turn back. A week and a half out and a week and half back, but it felt longer. I was so ill!'' John Howland said.

``We call her the Leakwell,'' Priscilla Mullins joked. Eleanor Billington, one of the few women who would survive that first winter in Massachusetts, confides she doesn't want to leave London at all, but her husband is convinced he'll make a great profit in the new world. How many spouses today have heard that song?

When the Pilgrims aren't chatting with the guests, they're singing 17th-century songs, often in rounds, to the delight of all of the junior guests.

Incredibly, there didn't seem to be any bored, fidgety children in the bunch. The O'Toole boys, in fact, had enjoyed their fete with the Pilgrims so much their parents had brought them back for the second year in a row. ``I think we'll make this an annual tradition,'' Karen O'Toole said. That suited her sons just fine. They loved eating without a fork.

IF YOU GO: Plymouth is about 40 miles south of Boston. The 1620 Harvest Dinner costs $39.95 for adults and $27.95 for children, including museum admission, which includes entrance to the Plantation, the Mayflower II and Hobbamock's Homesite. Reservations for this dinner and the Victorian Thanksgiving Dinner ($57.95 for adults, $39.95 for kids, including museum admission) begin Aug. 1. Call 800-262-9356. Museum admission is $18.50 for adults and $11 for children 6-12. Visit the Web site at www.plimoth.org)

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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