The Legendary Origins Of the Covered-Dish Supper

Just a few evenings ago, a national network game show paid some $50,000 for Squanto, which was the wrong answer because the answer was Squantum. Squantum, also known as Tisquantum, was a sachem of the Pawtuxet tribe, and having just spent some time in London as a houseguest of His Lordship John Popham, chief justice for the Crown, he was the right one to greet the Pilgrims when they came to Plymouth with his celebrated, ''Welcome, Englishmen!'' Squanto was somebody else again, although, like Tisquantum, a sachem of his nation.

The moral is to never believe a historian.

It was a historian who, according to legend, got poor Squanto into this irretrievable plight. The historian had done his scholarly treatise on the Gulf of Maine, which had good readership in England, easily replacing ''Gullible's Trabbles,'' and he had said that an Indian baby swims naturally and does not need to be taught. If one as yet unintroduced to water falls overboard, there is little cause for alarm. Never having swum before, it will paddle ashore, wrote Joycelyn.

Shortly after, some British soldiers off an exploring vessel were rowing a skiff at the mouth of the Saco River and they came upon a squaw paddling a canoe. Her newborn child was beside her.

Now as people are wont to believe what they've read, no matter how foolish the ''facts'' may seem, the English soldiers, having seen in print that Indian children are born swimmers, tipped over the canoe to test the veracity of the historian. The historian had been wrong.

The squaw swam ashore and hurried by foot to the village where she told her husband about this, and the husband was Squanto and he was displeased. He never forgave the English and for a number of years wreaked fearful vengeance, deeds that English historians have always told us were savage outrages by uncivilized red beasts living without pants and neckties among the squirrels and wildcats.

(A parenthetical word now about the term squaw. It comes from an Algonquian word meaning a female and a wife, and is in no way deprecatory. Since the rise of equal-opportunity activists, however, certain perfectly good words have been given imaginary uncomplimentary nuances, and are sometimes avoided, and there has persisted a strange aversion to squaw as if it had an indelicate flavor.

If, as somebody may say, it sounds impure to ears accustomed to English, I think at the same time we should give heed to the German word for a squaw, which is Frau. In Germany in recent years there has been discussion as to what age an unmarried Fraulein may begin being a Frau. Were I eligible, I think I'd rather be called a squaw than a Frowsie. Activists amuse me more than they suppose.)

I now resume:

The ill manners of the English as they approached America were different from the happier intrusions of the French, who introduced themselves, shook hands, and said ''Enchante!'' with a smile and stayed for supper. In the early 1500s, a vessel from Europe would appear off Monhegan Island, and the first thing an Indian did was find out if those aboard were English or French.

If they were English, the word went around, ''Les Anglais!'' That's where our word Yankee came from: not from ''English,'' but from Anglais. The Indians didn't like Yankees.

In 1605, as my sources have it, 15 years before Capt. Miles Standish, Capt. George Weymouth in his vessel Archangel appeared off Monhegan Island, seeking a place for England's first settlement in America.

Some Indians approached his anchored craft warily, rowing a round-bottomed boat of French design, and upon finding the crew was English pulled away as if to leave. Making signs of peace, the English cajoled them back and offered food.

But the Indians were not to be abused by English snedricks and refused to come aboard and break bread. They kept a distance until a sizable pot was offered, with gestures that they should row alongside to get it. They did, and thus the first Maine covered- dish supper took place.

Sometimes a tourist will see a sign for a covered-dish supper, put on perhaps by a church or lodge, and ask what it is. The word casserole explains that. So the Indians took their casserole and rowed away, going to their village to share the first feed of boiled ''pease'' ever tasted by the American Indian. But they would not come aboard the Archangel, and it took some time for Captain Weymouth to convince them they would not be cheated or shanghaied and could expect to leave as they pleased.

The Indians liked boiled pease. It seemed to persuade them, because the next day they appeared again, this time with the boat riding low in the water with a full crowd of sightseers. But the Indians still would not venture aboard the Archangel, and kept their distance with only one close moment.

That was when they came in under the ship's prow and handed the pease-porridge pot up to a seaman on an overside ladder. This proves the whole story, no matter what you read in a history book.

Every housewife in Maine has her name on a label pasted on the bottom of her covered dish. In this way the supper committee knows where to return it the morning after the supper. Unless the lady is at the supper and picks it up herself. An old Indian custom.

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