What the Pilgrims Drank on Thanksgiving
No, it wasn’t champagne or beer or even whiskey, but cider—the drink of the Romans and British sailors. It’s a tipple you should still be knocking back on Thanksgiving.
“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider”
—Benjamin Franklin, in Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, reporting an American Indian’s response to hearing the story of Adam and Eve.
No one knows exactly what the Pilgrims drank at the first Thanksgiving back in 1621. No known televised documentaries have survived to date, and little written documentation chronicling the meal exists. However, all evidence points to the fact that the Pilgrims toasted survival and that first harvest in America with mugs of hard apple cider.
Cider became a staple in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, dubbed the beverage’s “Golden Age.” While the drink had existed in initial forms for centuries, cider’s influence remained relatively contained to England’s upper crust (they had ample time and money to cultivate orchards) until the end of the 16th century, when it became a more democratic tipple.
Cider’s history, like the apple’s is long, curious, and celebrated. The cultivated apple we know today is the Malus pumila or M. Domestica and most likely originated in the Tien Shah Mountains, along the border between northwest China and Kazakhstan. (Kazakh capital’s name, “Alma-Ata,” means “father of apples.”) That apple probably derived from the M. Sieversii, which grows wild in a number of places, making the apple’s origin especially hard to pin down. In his book Cider: Hard and Sweet, Ben Watson notes that wild apples are depicted on Paleolithic cave art that dates back as far as 30,000 BCE. Around 8,000 years ago, apples began to surface in trade routes and began to pass through Central Asia. Homer writes of them in The Odyssey, and apples were Alexander the Great’s favorite dessert.
Cider’s birthplace is nearly as hard to identify, though the first record of cider production dates back to Rome. Julius Caesar and his soldiers drank cider made from crabapples in 55 BC. Throughout their conquests, Romans brought apple cuttings and horticultural knowledge across Europe (including to England), and by the 2nd Century CE, Romans were making cider (they called it “apple wine”), which we can read all about thanks to Pliny the Elder.
In 1066, after a long lull in cider production, the Norman Conquest (led by William II of Normandy, who became William the Conqueror) sparked a renewed cider interest in England. William’s army brought cuttings of several varieties including the Pearmain (a pear) among others. Cider soon became the most popular drink after ale and gained new ground again in the early 16th century, when Richard Harris (“fruiterer” to Henry VIII) procured several additional apple grafts from France, including Pippins, a desert apple that made sweet and delicious ciders.
England’s growing shipping trade during the 16th and 17th Centuries also contributed to cider’s increasing demand. Ted Bruning notes in Golden Fire: The Story of Cider, that the English soon realized “a sealed cask of cider…will not only keep but will go on improving for months or even years.” Sea captains observed that fewer passengers contracted scurvy on ships stocked with casks of cider aboard. Bruning also records that cider’s acclaim grew after several brutally cold winters wiped out vineyards in England and along France’s west coasts. Two additional factors spurred cider’s growing popularity at the time: trade restrictions on ale (which did not exist on cider) and England’s shortage of burnable wood (which impeded ale production).
During the middle of this Golden Age, in 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Several species of apples grew native in the area (garland, sweet crab, prairie crab, and southern crab), making it likely that the Pilgrims brewed their own cider, and American-bound English ships would have provided a steady supply as well. Early settlers used the apple cider for a variety of other products including applejack (initially produced by settlers who left buckets of fermenting cider out in the cold, then removed the layer of accumulated ice), apple brandy, and cider vinegar. Apple trees spread as settlers did, and by 1775, one in every ten farms in New England operated a cider mill. (Water was either unpalatable or, near towns, polluted, ale grew increasingly expensive and early attempts at growing barley and hops failed miserably.) According to Watson, by 1767 cider consumption per-capita had reached 1.14 barrels—more than 35 gallons per person.
Then beer became America’s favorite beverage, a position it still holds today. But cider production and consumption is on the rise after a long fallow period. In the United States, demand for cider has increased 65 percent in the past two years alone, far outpacing craft beer and wine.
In the spirit of historical tradition, cider would make an excellent addition to any Thanksgiving meal. Cider boasts acidity and (generally) effervescence, both of which cleanse the palate and add brightness and lift to rich dishes. In addition, cider is lower in alcohol than wine or beer, and it usually hovers at around five percent alcohol by volume. This makes it an excellent beverage to sip while you’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner, too.
In case you are not all that familiar with cider, here are a few rules of note – in extremely generalized terms that will probably get me in trouble. Ciders from France taste like apples (or pears). Ciders from Spain taste like feet. Ciders from America are a little bit boring (but getting better).
What does that mean? In Normandy, French cider makers – especially top producers like Eric Bordelet, Etienne Dupont, and Cyril Zangs, are making ciders that are sweet, fragrant, and taste of fruit. Bordelet worked for years as a sommelier at l’Arpege, in Paris, and his ciders in particular behave like refined wines. They are nuanced and pure. Dupont's are slightly more rustic but equally magical. Zangs’ are lively and pure, and slightly spicy and herbaceous.
In Asturias, the cider apples are more bitter and tannic than in other regions. The style they produce resembles sour ale more than fruit. Isastegi Cider is one of the region’s most classic and elegant. In Asturias, more cider is consumed per capita than anywhere else in the world.
In America, we are finally rediscovering our cider-loving roots. Unfortunately, most heirloom apple trees have long since been ripped out of the ground. Trees have been replanted, but we will have to wait a few years until those trees mature. Foggy Ridge Cider, in Virginia, is making clean and bright ciders. Aaron Burr Cidery in Wurtsboro, New York, makes tiny quantities of funky, interesting cider from heirloom varieties, fermented with indigenous yeasts.
With a history that includes the Pilgrims, Julius Caesar, William the Conqueror (not to mention Charlemagne, who planted orchards in 800 CE), among others, cider’s renaissance is a welcome return to American roots. In the name of history and deliciousness, it is especially welcome this year at my Thanksgiving table.