Where will you eat your Thanksgiving dinner, and with whom? These are difficult questions in the Age of COVID. They were easy questions in the 1700s.
By the late 18th century, New Englanders, including Berkshire residents, ate together at groaning tables in taverns. Food historians tell us the taverns typically served: venison pie, roasted goose, roasted turkey, chine of pork, pottage of cabbage, leeks and onions, puddings and several vegetables, pumpkin and apple pies.
Venison is most often deer, but in earlier centuries it could refer to any game meat. Chine of pork is tender meat found around the backbone that is usually cut in a square for easier carving at the table. Potage of cabbage is cabbage soup, and pudding could be sweet or savory. Turkey was often glazed with apricot preserves, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. An 18th-century cake recipe says, “Start with 3 dozen eggs, 10 pounds of butter, and 14 pounds of sugar.”
In the late 1600s, Massachusetts taverns had wonderful names — Tree of Knowledge, Bunch of Grapes, Green Dragon, Orange Tree, Red Horse — and terrible reputations. In 1696, Salem Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall wrote: “I always thought it great prudence … to state the number of publique houses [allowed] in towns and regulations of such houses … thereby to prevent all sorts of wickedness which grows daily … in these pest houses and places of enticement.”
Six decades later, Berkshire taverns were known simply by the names of the owners, and licensing of taverns was required. Between 1761 and 1762, the taverns were also called inns, public houses and coffee houses. House was a good descriptor because taverns were often located in houses.
No one knows why they were called coffee houses. Early Berkshire residents bought coffee beans, but only ground, brewed, and drank coffee at home. It was not brewed and served in coffee houses because, in the opinion of most 18th-century folks, brewing coffee produced an “evil smell.” Regardless of what you called a tavern, the most popular drinks were punch, cider, grog, beer, ale, Madeira, syllabub (sweetened milk or cream curdled with wine) and flip (sweetened beer heated with rum or brandy added).
Early Berkshire taverns were no longer rowdy places; they were regulated as Saltonstall had wished. It was unlawful to dance in a tavern or to play dice, cards or other gambling games. Berkshire taverns were established along the main stagecoach lines. In Pittsfield, that was East Street to Boston; West Street to Albany, N.Y.; and South Street to Hartford, Conn., and Hudson, N.Y.
The first to receive a “taverner” license in Pittsfield was Daniel Hubbard in 1762; his tavern was on West Street. Other early taverns were owned by David Noble (on the east side of town), Capt. John Strong on East Street, and Capt. James Easton on South Street.
In South County, taverns were located along what we now call Routes 7 and 102. The tiny village of Stockbridge had three taverns, and in Great Barrington, the minister complained there were more taverns than churches. Though taverns were often located in stagecoach inns, the Berkshire taverns that survived attracted both travelers and locals.
Locals frequented the taverns for many reasons. Today, we would not think of a tavern as part of the cultural life of a town, but in 18th-century Berkshire, it was.
In taverns, the population came together, local news was exchanged, clubs were formed, and club meetings were held. Mail was delivered by the stagecoaches to taverns, as were local and out-of-town newspapers. All were collected, read and discussed at the taverns. Books were exchanged. Taverns were de facto libraries and post offices.
Taverns were also part of the political life. The minutes of the town meetings were posted there as were the 18th-century version of legal notices: “Mr. X declares that he will no longer pay the bills of his wife Mrs. X as she is profligate.”
In the late 1700s, in taverns, a revolution was plotted. Reputedly, John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster drank at Pittsfield taverns. Tavern owners David Noble and John Strong were among the first Pittsfield residents to stand for liberty and the Revolution. At Stockbridge and Lenox taverns, proclamations were discussed, written, signed and read aloud.
During the Revolution, the civil courts were closed because the judges were considered Tories (royalists). Civil matters were heard at James Easton’s Tavern on South Street in Pittsfield. When the Revolutionary War ended, taverns became the strongholds of political parties. One tavern served only Federalists, and another limited its custom to the Democrat-Republicans.
At Merrick’s, a party of Federalists were declined service at the Fourth of July dinner because Merrick was an anti-Federalist tavern. This only caused the Federalists to come together, raise the money, and open their own tavern on Park Square — wherein, they promised, to serve everyone.
When the church loosened its grip, music as well as dancing was added to entertainment in taverns. Ballrooms were built for dances and parties. The ballrooms were usually on the second floor, and sometimes a second floor had to be built first. Taverns became the places for celebrations. While Christmas was celebrated in church, and New Year was celebrated at home, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July dinners were eaten in taverns.