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Ruminations: Pilgrim’s Prejudice

At age 24, I became a professional pilgrim. Each day, I arrived hours before visitors to Plimoth Plantation, and often grabbed a cup of staff coffee, lightened with milk from goats on the property. Grimacing at the sharp tang, my mind wandered to my in-laws’ elegant parties, where they served chèvre instead of the creamy Brie I craved. But it was early and I was tired, so I choked down the sour brew while donning various layers of my costume: Shift, sip; stockings, sip; garters, sip; shoes, sip; and on through corset, petticoats, overskirt, waistcoat, knife belt, pocket, apron, linen cap, and hat.

Milking the animals was part of my job, and the sheer size of the cows terrified me. Clover the goat seemed more manageable. She was a kicker, though, and milking her required quick reflexes. I kneeled in the dirt and used three fingers to squirt streams into a small brass bucket with a dented, rounded bottom. Soon I learned to lean my head against her side so I could feel the weight shift just before she tried to overturn the pail—any session that ended with usable milk was a triumph. Clover made me work for every precious drop, yet despite our battles, I grew inordinately fond of the spirited doe.

Plus, using her milk to make cheese was akin to performing a magic act. I was assigned to Alden house—a reproduction of a historic home—and I warmed the milk over a fire, stirred in rennet, and covered it against flies, often for a small crowd. An hour or two later, I’d lift the lid to reveal lovely white curds in greenish whey. As I placed the curds into a cloth to drip, visitors oohed and aahed. I felt like a rock star—but I still didn’t care for the finished product.

One afternoon, after hours of tending the hearth, handling animals, cooking, gardening, talking, talking, and talking—all while bound in a corset and wearing 30 pounds of clothing—I was famished. I cast around for something to eat and found only the cheese and some bread. Desperate, I cut a slice and smeared it with curds.

I braced myself for the bitter, grainy zing I disliked, but it never came. Instead, I savored every bite. I don’t know what exactly caused the gustatory shift. Perhaps the bread, a dense mix of wheat and rye, lessened the sour tang just enough, its chewiness a perfect foil for the soft cheese. Maybe my enjoyment in the make process had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, the cow’s milk-laden coffee I drank at home suddenly seemed lacking.

Today, I eat chèvre with gusto. It’s been a long time since my pilgrim days, but thanks to my stint in the 1600s, I have this fantasy: I picture myself in a cottage on a hill. Goats graze outside. Inside, a cheery fire crackles next to a table laid with the fruits of my labors: hearty bread and a dish of freshly made cheese. Centuries come and go, but simple pleasures remain the same.

Illustration by Aleks Sennwald

Sarah Monsma

Sarah Monsma is a freelance writer who lives near Boston. Though she misses aspects of her 17th-century life—namely milking goats and cooking over a fire—she doesn't miss the corset.

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