Imagine, if you will, that it’s the mid-1600’s. Close your eyes and envision yourself sitting with William and Anne Nickerson in their homestead in Chatham. The fire in the hearth is flickering and Anne occasionally rises to stir a chowder in the kettle while William, tired from a day at his loom and his small blacksmith shop, sits back and lights his pipe. Imagine you are in the chair closest to Anne’s spinning wheel, now idle, chatting with them about their life and times.
“Anne, how did you learn to make chowder?” “Well, if memory serves, it was my grandmother’s recipe. She taught me many other things as well. Things that I use every day. My mother shared in the teaching also. She’d always remind me that one must learn and do for one’s self and not be too dependent on others.”
In other words, be self-sustaining. In this blog series, I shall share with you some of the answers as to how our smart and hardy ancestors coped with living in an age long before the Internet, the microwave, antibiotics or GPS. How they could be self-sustaining in their New World journey.
My great-grandparents on my father’s side, James and Bessie Nickerson, were born in the early 1870’s. And my grandparents Edna and Paul Nickerson were born at the turn of the 20th Century. My grandparents on my mother’s side, Nick and Bernice Klasne, also were born in the early 1870’s. They immigrated to America in 1906. They were all alive during my childhood except for Bernice, and spent a great deal of time with me. Consequently, I grew up ‘old-fashioned,’ as did many of my peers in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The tales my great-grandparents and grandparents told me were of a very different time. They told me of a time when you made the most of what you had, no matter how little that was.
I was taught that it was common for families to pass down clothes to the younger siblings as I did mine to my younger brother. Frequently after I came home from school I’d be fed soup made using the previous day’s leftovers of vegetables, potatoes, and bones the butcher had thrown out. Easily the best soup I have ever tasted. My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were not only from a different age, but also from a different philosophy.
Here we are, human beings in the 21st century, years separated from our forebears and their ways. Have we become better at living, has modern technology given us a better world to live in than our ancestors had?
Not always. Sometimes, the old ways are better than ours. We need to learn the skills of our ancestors, skills that allowed them and their children to survive wars and famines.
Back in my grandparents’ day, clothing was typically made by hand. My grandmothers would buy the fabric, create a pattern from existing clothes, cut the material and sew the outfit up. If an item of clothing became worn or ripped, or a hole opened in a sock, they would mend it, not throw it out. This was long before recycling and up-cycling were ‘on trend’ – this wasn’t recycling, this was an expected way of doing things.
Home medicine was common. You simply couldn’t afford to see the doctor and so various ‘folk medicine’ recipes were used for general illnesses and injuries. Medicines like poultices and various ‘teas’ were used to treat everything from minor cuts to stomach pains. As our antibiotics stop working, we may find these home remedies useful again.
And these skills were passed down from generation to generation. My mother, in turn, was taught from early childhood to sew and knit. The recipes for folk medicines and which berries were safe to eat, were learned from childhood and children could fend for themselves.
We need to find that part of ourselves again. We need the knowledge that our ancestors had to ‘make do and mend;’ to cook and grow, build and learn. To produce, but know when to stop producing, to have enough, but not too much.
We can embrace many of the aspects of their lifestyle again and revel in the abilities we still have, as human beings, to live our lives using our own hands and minds and bodies – to be explorers again in our world and not passive users of it.
These thoughts provoked me to think back, a long way back, in fact to 1636, when William and Anne sailed to the New World to settle in an unknown and frequently hostile environment. How did they cope with everyday living? Given their success with coping as evidenced by you and I and the thousands of William and Anne’s descendants whom we call our cousins being here, they must have learned well from their forebears.
I have researched questions such as: how did our forebears use fire and sustain it, what recipes did they have and what were the ingredients, how was water preserved, how did they make “beverages,” how did they store their foodstuffs, what did they use for hygiene, how did they navigate the wilderness, what did the American Indians teach them in terms of survival, and many other activities of daily living.
In this blog series, you will find the answers to those questions and more. I shall share colonial recipes, e.g. the recipe for ginger beer. Methods for cooking a fire roasted feast over on an open flame will allow you to create the same.
So join William and Anne by the fire. Put your feet up, and get ready to hear about their fascinating journey.
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