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Nov. 16, 2007 | The Mayflower beer tale takes a hit
"We could not now take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beer." - Mayflower diary, 1620
IT IS ONE of the grand chapters of America's storied beer history: Having survived more than two brutal months at sea in their voyage to the New World, the Pilgrims finally set anchor at Plymouth Rock, forced to find dry land because their barrels were empty.
And, thus, the very founding of our nation was a product of nothing less than man's basic need for a refreshing mug of beer.
Great story, one that has been repeated for years in history books, newspaper stories, TV documentaries and even school plays.
Unfortunately, according to Chicago author Bob Skilnik, it's a myth. On this Thanksgiving, he's trying to set the record straight.
A historian and author of several books on beer, Skilnik says it's absurd to believe the Pilgrims anchored simply because they had run out of beer. Aside from making them sound like drunken frat boys on a transatlantic beer cruise, historical documents indicate they had other priorities.
"I don't want to say that the beer, pilgrims and Thanksgiving is all myth," Skilnik said. "The practice of beer on board as a supply is certainly true, and it was thought to even cure scurvy."
But, he continued, "in actuality, there was plenty of beer still on board for crew members who had to make the return passage to England."
So what about that diary entry?
The comment is contained in the chronicles of the voyage, known as "Mourt's Relation," largely written by William Bradford, the settlers' leader. Here's the entire passage:
"That night we returned again a-shipboard, with resolution the next morning to settle on some of these places; so in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution: to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take the time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it is now the 19th of December."
Dec. 19? Wait a minute, I remember my fifth-grade teacher drilling it into my head that the Mayflower landed in November 1620. The Pilgrims had already been anchored more than a month when that passage was written.
Expeditionary crews had been checking the lay of the land for weeks, looking for a suitable place to build homes, said Skilnik, while the rest stayed onboard.
Food and supplies had run low. The cold was brutal. Hunger and disease spread. Passengers were dying. Meanwhile, there was fowl and fresh water waiting on shore.
It wasn't the shortage of beer that finally prompted the Pilgrims to give up the ship. It was plain common sense.
So how did the myth become fact?
Blame it on Budweiser.
In the early 1900s, with Prohibition looming, Anheuser-Busch - along with other breweries - launched an advertising campaign that promoted beer as a fundamental part of America's heritage. A 1908 full-page Budweiser ad in the Washington Post, for example, champions beer as "The drink of the great" and notes how our "Pilgrim fathers drank it."
After Prohibition, the message grew even slicker, thanks to an annual Thanksgiving publicity campaign by the U.S. Brewers Association. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, newspaper readers were treated to features with headlines like, "Beer, Not Turkey, Lured Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock."
"I don't blame them for what they did," said Skilnik, whose book, "Beer & Food: An American History" (Jefferson Press, 2006) recounts part of this tale. "The repeal years were a scary time for the industry. They were afraid that Prohibition could happen again . . . "
Since then, the myth has grown.
Skilnik says he's read claims that the first thing the Pilgrims did at Plymouth was build a brewery. Not true. They built huts to protect themselves from the cold.
It's also doubtful that they drank beer at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The barley crop that year was described as "indifferent." More likely, they were drinking wine made with wild grapes.
Still, this is one of those myths that's unlikely to die for two reasons:
_ First, the whole notion of our forefathers settling our country and then sharing tankards of dark English ale with the Indians sounds delicious. The Brewers Association, for example, has based an entire beer-and-turkey holiday campaign on the canard.
_ Second, as you settle around the table this season in tribute to that first Thanksgiving, consider the more historically accurate alternative. As the first published poem written by a colonist, just 10 years after the Mayflower landed, suggests:
"If barley be wanting to make into malt,
We must be content and think it no fault.
For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips
Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips."