It’s no secret that Rhode Islanders love food, and enjoy a wide range of different cuisines. For Roger Williams, the dining options were more limited.
It’s no secret that Rhode Islanders love food, and enjoy a wide range of different cuisines.
For Roger Williams, the dining options were more limited. He had so many challenges when he arrived at Narragansett Bay in 1636 – negotiating with Native Americans, managing the arrival of new colonists, arguing with authorities in Boston and London – that we can forget how difficult it must have been simply to survive.
Consider his predicament. Because he had fled in the middle of winter, he had no crops to harvest, and no farmland to call his own. That meant he had to nothing to eat except what he could carry, or find through foraging in the forest, or ask from the Native Americans who were here. The third option was by far the most reliable, but to always be asking for help did not exactly begin the experiment on strong note. Fortunately, as Roger wrote, the Natives were as generous with their food as if they were “emperors.”
Nor did these difficulties vanish with the passage of time. Even after settling into a permanent location, early Rhode Islanders had to plan carefully, if they were to have enough to eat. American plants were different than the ones in England, and one of the many ways in which the settlers began to adapt to their new surroundings was by learning how to fish and farm better. This botanical knowledge was essential for medicine as well as food; as the Natives knew, many cures for bee stings, rashes, and illnesses could be found simply by consulting the book of Nature.
Once again, the Natives helped. Roger’s book, A Key into the Language of America, offers many glimpses of the culinary possibilities that were available. In his second chapter, “Of Eating and Entertainment,” Roger described a few of their staples. Nòkehick was a parched meal that they would carry in small pouches, allowing them to travel great distances without having to carry anything heavy. Nasàump was a corn meal which they would eat hot or cold, with milk or butter added – Roger added that the English called it “samp,” and found it “exceeding wholesome.”
In other ways, too, the new environment was wholesome. The variety of fish and shell-fish was dazzling – a seventeenth-century New Englander, John Josselyn, counted over 200 kinds of fish. Clams were so interesting to Roger that he devoted a paragraph of his book to them. He also loved local berries, and wrote, “God never did make a better berry” than the ones the English found in Rhode Island. Squash, beans and pumpkins were important local crops, in addition to the all-important corn. A Narragansett word, “succotash,” is still in use to describe a dish that is usually a combination of corn and beans. Venison and turkey were plentiful in the woods. And with time, the livestock that the English brought with them began to grow in number, supplying milk, butter and meat.
Rhode Islanders ate all of it, and with time, as their ships traveled greater distances, they brought back new foodstuffs, from the Caribbean, South America, Africa and Asia. Today, Rhode Island cuisine is so diverse and cosmopolitan that it’s hard to imagine a time when all food was confined to the plants and animals that could be found here. But solving that first challenge was the key to solving all of the rest. Learning how to eat was a critically important step in Roger’s path to becoming a Rhode Islander.
See recipes for traditional Narragansett dishes here.
Alice Morse Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days. New York: Macmillan, 1898.
Howard S. Russell, Indian New England Before the Mayflower. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1980
William S. Simmons, The Narragansett. New York: Chelsea House, 1989
Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America, 1643