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November 24, 2020 Amanda Lange

Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner? – Or One Feast to Forget!

This week we are all gearing up for a very different Thanksgiving. Far fewer guests, dining on Zoom, or calling the whole thing off until next year. The traditional feast and its attendant stresses remind me of a wonderful 1794 letter from Samuel Field (1743-1800) of Conway to his sister Filana Dickinson (1761-1831) of Deerfield.  Filana and her husband Consider Dickinson (1761-1854) were expected for dinner in Conway but never showed up. (This was a distance of about 8-10 miles.)

Samuel’s letter takes his sister to task for her lack of consideration, but also gives a great description of the dinner they missed and the expense and trouble that the family took in sourcing scarce ingredients.  The Fields prepared an elaborate meal that included several kinds of meat (fresh beef, beef tripe, salt pork and beans), apple pies better than the common sort (with pared apples), and seasonal delicacies such as watermelon and cucumbers. As a final brotherly dig, Samuel wonders if it was possible that their horse Shambo had gone lame?

Here is a transcription of the letter in its entirety.

Mrs. Filana Dickinson Conway Septr 16th, 1794

Dear Sister,

I hope you will not be affronted nor even take it amiss, if you find it in the Course of this Letter- I should be very plain and open hearted- …. that is, the Distress and great Anxiety, you have lately caused in our Family. … Some Time last week we had the agreeable News, that you intended to make us a Visit on Saturday last …..Every Preparation, so far as our Circumstances, would admit, begun seasonably to be made –  (and with Pleasure,  too I assure you) –  early on Saturday Morning, before Breakfast, Tirzah was sent off to Mr. Root’s with a Box, to get a Pound of Hogs Lard –  in order to make a great Batch of Apple Pies in Deerfield Taste — you cannot think how great the Disappointment, when Tirzah returned with an empty Box. (But if Deacon Root was out of Sewit – you cannot think it strange, that we should be, at this Season of the Year -)  Your sister sent Tirzah immediately to Major Boltwoods in hope, to be supplied there – but the story was the same- no Sewit – We were now in a great Dilemma- What is to be done? I posted away to the Store with my Box, in hope I might possibly, be supplied there – I asked Mr. Bardwell if he had any- he said no! –  I asked him if he knew where it could be procured – He said he did not –  I then asked him where he bought for himself- He said of his Father – I thought I could not go to Deerfield & back; before the Oven would be cold & so must lose my Labour, if I did – I then return & thought we must make the best we could of it  — Your Sister felt concerned about the matter – thought she would do the best she could – went directly about making a Forty Acre raised the Crust – and shortened it with Cream and to have it better than common, ordered  the Apples to be pared — The Pye was well seasoned with salt pork – for Mrs. Root, I suppose, by our sending for Sewit, thinking we were out of Pork –Sent us a good Chunk –  a Skillet of Pork & Beans was lodged in the oven for the Purpose – We had provided ourselves with a Store of fresh Beef, for your Entertainment -A Parcel of exceeding good Beef Tripe was brought nearly a Mile, and waited your Arrival- well cooked – altho we were in the midst of pickling, for the Winter – yet a Number of Cucumbers were  left on the Vines,  to be dressed for Supper, to add a Relish to the Entertainment — A number of Water Melons kept for the Business –  A fine large one overripened, and was since hardly worth eating & after all the Sun Set, and no Mr. Dickinson appeared –  We watch’d – every Traveller – we studied for the Reasons of Delay – on the whole willing to make the best Excuse, my wife said, perhaps Shambo was lame –  If that was the case we shall look over it –  if not we shall think, we have not been quite fairly dealt by –  If you can clear yourself, trust you will do it as soon as possible, until then I remain your Brother with much Affection…

Samuel Field

PS. Tell Mr. Dickinson in all the above Preparation – we had a particular Reference to him likewise.

This letter is located in the Papers of Filana Field Dickinson, Box 3, Folder 10, Dickinson Family Papers, Courtesy of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Library.

Samuel’s failed family gathering is history’s gain – only through his irritation, anxiety, and exasperation are we even aware of this meal. If it had gone off perfectly – no one would have written about it. The Curatorial Department recreated the dinner in the south parlor of the Sheldon House using fake food along with pewter, cutlery, glass, and English ceramics of the period. It’s one of those palpable moments where you can visualize Samuel, his wife Sarah, their son Samuel, and perhaps servant Tirzah waiting impatiently for relatives to arrive as their dinner grows cold and the sun sets.

  • South Parlor of the Sheldon House South Parlor of the Sheldon House, Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, MA, Photography by Penny Leveritt.

  • South Parlor of the Sheldon House South Parlor of the Sheldon House, Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, MA, Photography by Penny Leveritt.

  • Mug Mug, Ralph Wedgwood (1766-1837), Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, England, c. 1796-1801. Faintly stamped on the underside, “WEDGWOOD & CO.” Slip-decorated earthenware (creamware), gilding. Mr. and Mrs. Hugh B. Vanderbilt Fund for Curatorial Acquisitions, 81.041.