For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. The holiday feast dates back to November 1621, when the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth for an autumn harvest celebration, an event regarded as America’s “first Thanksgiving.” But what was really on the menu at the famous banquet, and which of today’s time-honored favorites didn’t earn a place at the table until later in the holiday’s 400-year history?
While no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild—but not domestic—turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.
Did You Know?
Many people report feeling drowsy after eating a Thanksgiving meal. Turkey often gets blamed because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that can have a somnolent effect. But studies suggest it’s the carbohydrate-rich sides and desserts that allow tryptophan to enter the brain. In other words, eating turkey without the trimmings could prevent that post-Thanksgiving energy lull.
Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s attendees almost certainly got their fill of meat. Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.
Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes with the tart orbs. That’s because the sacks of sugar that traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were nearly or fully depleted by November 1621. Cooks didn’t begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until about 50 years later.
FISH AND SHELLFISH
Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today’s menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast.
Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. After encountering it in its native South America, the Spanish began introducing the potato to Europeans around 1570. But by the time the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower, the tuber had neither doubled back to North America nor become popular enough with the English to hitch a ride. New England’s native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as Indian turnips and groundnuts, which they may or may not have brought to the party.
Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England—possibly even during the harvest festival—but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking. According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.