by Michael Bell

A Rhode Island tradition since 1867.

Many states have bean suppers, pancake breakfasts, and strawberry festivals, but only Rhode Island has May Breakfasts. The May Breakfast tradition began in 1867 at the Old Quaker Meeting House, the first church in Cranston. Mrs. Ruby King Wilbur, president of the Searle's Corner Benevolent Society, originated the event to raise funds for a new building, borrowing the idea from the English May Day celebration. Four-hundred and sixty-six people attended the first May Breakfast, helping to raise $155.50.

Quakers built the Friends Meeting House at Searle's Corner (now known as Oak Lawn) in western Cranston in 1729. The Quaker population dwindled over the years until finally, in 1866, Lodowick Brayton bought the building and donated it for use as a Sunday school. Two years later, the church affiliated with the Baptists. The current building was constructed in 1879, and the old Quaker Meeting House was moved and attached to the back of the new building. Now all that's left from the first structure are a wall and several beams.

But the May Breakfast continues, even though it has changed over the past 127 years, reflecting the concerns of a wider society. The first May Breakfast was a two-day event featuring Aunt Hannah Babcock's clamcakes, biscuits by organizer Ruby King Wilbur, cold boiled ham, cold chicken, cold mashed turnips, and homemade jellies and pies. An observer of these early breakfasts says that Mrs. Wilbur once had to use more than a barrel of flour to make enough biscuits to "keep the hungry ones at the table quiet. Dozens of persons always blushed when asked how many they had eaten."

In addition to breakfast there was a Maypole dance and an evening of food and hymn singing that culminated in the crowning of the May Queen. Although English folklore says that the girl chosen May Queen would not live another full year, seventy years later, the first May Queen, Mrs. Anna Armstrong, was still well enough to send her best wishes to the celebrants of the 1937 installment.

As the Oak Lawn Community Baptist Church celebrated its fiftieth May Breakfast in 1917, the event seemed in jeopardy. A contemporary journalist wrote, "On account of the war and the wavering food supply, it may be the last for several years to come." Economic concerns had already bumped turnips from the menu and substituted eggs for chicken, and even eggs were said to be "on the verge" because of increasing price. A newspaper article commented that "the breakfast is now the whole performance. The old home week frills were long ago discarded, and the honk of the automobile completely drowns out the whinnying of the family horse."

But the Oak Lawn breakfasts, and the eggs, persisted, with a slight alteration due to the Second World War. Since fat was scarce, hashed brown potatoes temporarily replaced clamcakes. Parishioners also pooled their rationing coupons so that they could continue to serve ham.

After the war, more foods than ever filled the tables of the dozens of May Breakfasts then vying for celebrants: ham, eggs, toast, coffee, jonnycakes, clamcakes, pancakes, sausage, fried potatoes, baked beans, tomato soup, Danish pastry, and homemade pies tempted the early risers. At Oak Lawn, time constraints and increased crowds altered the menu: cornbread supplanted powder biscuits, which had to be shaped individually, and apple pie became the standard, replacing the likes of pumpkin, squash, mince, custard, rhubarb, and prune; jonnycakes were not served since they require cooking for six minutes on each side.

Now the Women's Union Society (formerly the Ladies Aide Society) of the Oak Lawn church supervises the baking of two hundred apple pies and scrambling of over two thousand eggs. Workers still have to report well before sunrise, since traditionally the event begins at daybreak, harking back to the days when farmers had to be up early to do chores. Hot cornbread rewards those who appear at five in the morning.

While May Breakfasts are unique to Rhode Island, May Day celebrations have been traced back to the Floralia of ancient Rome, honoring the goddess of flowers in festivities lasting from April 28 to May 3. The Romans introduced the festival to Great Britain during their occupation, thus reinforcing the established Celtic May first celebration of Beltane.

Both the Roman and English celebrations were characterized by licentiousness, which, of course, offended the Puritans, who passed an act in Parliament in 1644 forbidding the erection of Maypoles. Although the prohibition was repealed after the English Restoration, the Puritans of New England continued to scorn such celebrations. In 1660, Governor Endicott of Massachusetts, perhaps responding to Puritan objections to the Maypole festivities, led a company of men to Merrymount where a pole had been erected and chopped it down. Then he named the place Mount Dagon after the idol of the Philistines that fell before the ark.

So, don't look for a May Breakfast in Massachusetts. Like others who have sought relief from Puritan suppression, you'll have to come to Rhode Island.

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. This article originally appeared in the May 1994 issue of Guide to the Ocean State. It appears here with permission of the author.

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This article last edited April 21, 2004

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