For most Americans, a traditional Thanksgiving meal includes a turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and pumpkin pie (or sweet potato pie if you are a Southerner). While there are many regional and ethnic variations, this basic Thanksgiving menu has not changed much in the last 200 years, and the standard bill of fare isn’t much older than that. Our modern feast bears little resemblance to the 1621 celebration popularly known as the First Thanksgiving, even as the many traditional qualities of today’s holiday make us think of our connections to the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.
The Colonists and the Natives often ate wild turkey, although it is not specifically mentioned in Edward Winslow’s eyewitness account of the First Thanksgiving. He said that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of fowl – with waterfowl like ducks and geese being most likely from such a bountiful shoot. Hunters could position themselves in marsh grass and fire at scores of birds floating on the water. Yet Governor Bradford’s description of the Pilgrims’ first autumn in Plymouth makes it clear, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” The fowl served at the First Thanksgiving could have been turkeys, ducks, geese, and swan. Early Plymouth writings also mention eating eagle and crane at other times. And what about stuffing? Yes, the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims occasionally stuffed birds and fish, typically with herbs or onions. The English sometimes used oats in their stuffing.
If cranberries were served at the First Thanksgiving, they appeared in Wampanoag dishes, or possibly added tartness to a Pilgrim sauce. It was 50 years before an English writer would mention boiling this quintessential New England berry with sugar for a “Sauce to eat with… Meat.” In 1621, sugar was expensive in England, and there may not have been any of this costly imported sweetener in the colony at the time of the First Thanksgiving.
Potatoes originated in South America and had not made their way into the Wampanoag diet at the time of the 1621 harvest celebration. The Wampanoag did eat other varieties of tubers such as Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, sweet flag, Indian turnip and water lily. In the 16th century sweet and white potatoes had crossed the Atlantic to Europe, but they had not been generally adopted into the English diet. The sweet potato originated in the Caribbean, was cultivated in Spain and imported into England. It was a rare dainty available to the wealthy, and they believed it was a potent aphrodisiac. The white potato was virtually unknown by the average 17th-century Englishman. Only a few gentlemen who were amateur botanists and gardeners were trying to grow this Colonial curiosity.
At this point, you might be asking, “Surely pumpkin pie appeared at the First Thanksgiving?” Pumpkin -- probably yes, but pumpkin pie -- probably not. Pumpkins and squashes were native to New England, and like the turkey, were introduced to Europe during the 1500s where they gained widespread acceptance. In Plymouth, the American varieties were new to the Pilgrims, but hardly exotic. However, the fledgling colony probably did not have the butter and wheat flour for making piecrust.
Today’s familiar custard-like pumpkin pie, made with pureed pumpkin, was several generations away from invention. The earliest written pumpkin pie recipes are dated after the First Thanksgiving, and they treat the pumpkin more like apples, slicing it and sometimes frying the slices before placing them in a crust. (There were no apples in Plymouth at the time of the First Thanksgiving. Apples are not native to North America. By the end of the 17th century, the Colonists had brought over many plants and animals from England. Apple trees and honeybees were well-established and made New England feel more like the mother country.)
Today’s typical Thanksgiving dinner menu is actually more than 200 years younger than the 1621 harvest celebration and reflects the holiday’s roots in Colonial New England of the 1700s and Victorian nostalgia for an idyllic time when hearth and home, family and community were valued over industrial progress and change. While food historians have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available at the First Thanksgiving, deducing just what was served at the famous feast is still a tough nut to crack. The only contemporary description of the First Thanksgiving reports that they had seasonal wildfowl, and venison brought by the Wampanoag was presented to key Englishmen such as Governor Bradford and Captain Standish. In the letter where he describes the First Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow also details the bounty of his new home in Plymouth:
Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels... at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs. Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed... These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God t hanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.
Though not specifically mentioned by Winslow, corn was certainly part of the many feasts during the three-day event. The harvest being celebrated was that of the colorful hard flint corn that the Pilgrims often referred to as Indian corn. It was a staple for the Wampanoag and quickly become a fixture in Pilgrim cooking pots. It is intriguing to imagine how the Pilgrims processed and prepared this new corn for the first time in fall 1621. “Our Indian corn,” wrote Edward Winslow,” even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meat as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.
In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.
While many elements of the modern holiday menu are very different from the foods eaten in 1621, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both celebrations. The impulse to share hospitality with others and give thanks for abundance transcends the menu.
Edward Winslow’s final comment about the First Thanksgiving is a sentiment shared by many Americans on the nation’s holiday: And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.