With each holiday and celebration, it is the menu that most piques my interest. Food brings people together; on the best day it can break down cultural barriers, and it often provides a mode for keeping family traditions and history alive. It is no wonder that as Thanksgiving approaches, my mind turns to the history of this national holiday and the food that we now hold dear. Exactly how far have we strayed from that first Thanksgiving meal of the Pilgrims and Wamponoag? Would we find familiarity in dishes of stuffing, cranberry sauce, or sweet potato casserole? I’m here to find out.
Most famously, Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote an account of this first Thanksgiving feast in a letter, stating:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week… At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others…”
“They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week…”
This one account provides many important details in documenting the first Thanksgiving of 1621. Unlike our one-day national holiday, the Pilgrims and Wamponoag held a harvest feast lasting three days. While there is no specific mention of the presently popular turkey as the main course, it is clear that fowl were plentiful in early Plimoth. The meal most likely also included geese, duck, or other smaller birds. We can see from Winslow’s account that the Wamponoag contributed five deer, making the first Thanksgiving a very meat-heavy meal. What we know about the fishing practices at the time make it likely that shellfish was also on the menu.
So what about all the other fixings we now favor at Thanksgiving dinner? Most were unlikely to be found on the table in 1621. The ever-popular potato, for example, was not yet grown in the colonies, making mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, and the like impossible. In contrast, there is evidence that squash and other root vegetables were popular in the colonies. At the time, maize, not to be confused with more modern sweet kernel corn, was often used for breads or porridges. Instead of bread stuffing, fowl were probably stuffed with onions, herbs, and nuts.
Pumpkin and cranberries were grown at the time, making them likely dishes on the colonial Thanksgiving table. Due to high sugar costs, however, you wouldn’t have found cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. Unsurprisingly, it would be generations until these became Thanksgiving staples. Can you imagine a Thanksgiving without the crucial cranberry sauce debate of today? (Which is better? Whole berry or jelly from a can?)
This is a very brief dive into the food of the first Thanksgiving. As we prepare for Thanksgiving Day, consider incorporating some of these traditional foods into your menu. Perhaps you could swap out bread stuffing for a nut and onion stuffing? I may make venison and mussels the star of my meal instead of turkey. Either way, I hope you find the roots of our modern recipes as informative and interesting as I do.
What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving? Megan Gambino, 2011.
The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving. Joanne Camas, 2016.