The true tale of the first Thanksgiving feast...it wasn't turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie
Thanksgiving is unquestionably the day when we as a nation fully turn our focus to family and food. We reconnect with loved ones, and make our best effort towards putting gratitude at the center of the feasting, relaxing, and reminiscing about times gone by. The Thanksgiving feast has endured as an inherited national memory that celebrates a perceived historical moment when two cultures came together in an act of heartfelt kindness to share an autumn feast.
Most of us have a mental watercolor image of the original Thanksgiving feast: Pilgrims with buckles on their hats watching smiling, pale women in bonnets placing a roasted turkey on a table alongside an overflowing cornucopia of fall vegetables, corn on the cob and pumpkin pie. Standing next to the table are shirtless Native Americans with impeccable posture and just a hint of six-pack abs, smiling as they prepare to share the bounty of the land with their new colonist friends.
I hate to break it to you—but the image and story we were taught as impressionable doe-eyed youth is simply a romanticized myth; more historical fiction than an accurate account of that day’s events.
And while the actual political, social and cultural aspects of the original Thanksgiving day have been whitewashed and romanticized into an almost unrecognizable (but much more palatable) holiday tradition, the food we were led to believe was served at this feast bears virtually no resemblance to what appeared on the table.
The Thanksgiving meal that you craved with Pavlovian food lust every time a Butterball commercial played on your parents’ television; the Thanksgiving meal drawn on mimeographed pages that you colored in with the stumps and broken bits of a Crayola 64-pack in elementary school; the Thanksgiving meal that your mother and grandmother created from clanging pans and extra pours of red wine—that Thanksgiving meal is about as close to the original as tofurkey is to our beloved gobbler.
What little we know about the food that was served at the first Thanksgiving feast comes from a letter written by Edward Winslow, leader of the Plymouth Colony, in 1621, and from a brief mention in Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford’s journal. Winslow wrote,
“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 fruit of our labors. 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 they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding,
“And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
With only these scant clues to go on and some questionable oral history, we can start putting together a picture of what the true original Thanksgiving meal looked like. We know from Winslow’s and Bradford’s accounts that venison and wild fowl were served. But experts, such as Colonial Foodways Culinarian Kathleen Wall, believe that although wild turkey may have appeared on the menu, goose, duck, swan or passenger pigeon were more likely the featured birds for that year’s feast, since they would have been available in greater numbers and would have been easier to harvest.
The smaller birds would often be spit-roasted while larger birds were boiled, or roasted and then boiled. Some of the birds may have been stuffed, but with onions, fruits and nuts rather than bread. Bread made from corn may have been available, but more likely maize would have been used for dishes such as nasaump—dried corn, pounded, mixed with dried fruits or nuts and boiled into a thick porridge or boiled bread.
Alongside the fowl and venison there would have been fish, lobster, clams or mussels at the table. Because the cold temperatures would have made it difficult to harvest fresh seafood (particularly the mollusks that have to be dug for) many historians believe dried fish and shellfish would have been served.
The local Wampanoag tribe’s diet included foraged walnuts, chestnuts and beechnuts, as well as pumpkin, squash and a variety of beans, so we could safely assume that some of these items made it to that harvest feast. The colonists reportedly grew carrots, onions, garlic and turnips that year, but potatoes and sweet potatoes had not yet made it to North America from South America and the Caribbean, so they assuredly did not enjoy the now-ubiquitous mashed potatoes or sweet potato casserole. Cranberries and currants grew wild in the area, but would have been used to provide a tart component to meat dishes since sugar was not readily available, so that rules out cranberry sauce as well.
For dessert, the colonists and the Wampanoag may have had some cornmeal pudding sweetened with raisins or dried fruits. Because of the lack of sugar, desserts as we know them would not have been an option. In fact, in spite of pie being a common dish in the colonists’ native England, with no butter, sugar or oven (ovens didn’t appear until later and only in wealthy settler homes) it was not possible to make pastry for pie—pumpkin, meat or other.
So how did the Thanksgiving Day meal become the carb-fest it is today? The classic Thanksgiving menu of turkey, cranberries, pumpkin pie and root vegetables is based on traditional New England harvest festival menus, but as the holiday took hold across the nation, localized versions of the menu began to appear, using regional ingredients and favorites.
These regional variations remained regional until Southern Thanksgiving foods became known across the country. Southern staples such as corn, sweet potatoes and pork spread with the migrating Southerners, as did their popularity on American tables. Before long, sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, and cornbread dressing became the new tradition, along with turkey and cranberry sauce that remained from the holiday’s New England roots.
Recipes and menus abound for anyone looking to create a classic Thanksgiving meal, but for those intrepid food adventurers who would like to replicate some of the foods that were part of that first table-groaning Thanksgiving feast, here are a couple of recipes from “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie,” by culinary historians Kathleen Curtin and Sandra L. Oliver.
- 2 large wild onions, a bunch of small wild onions, or 2 good sized leeks, sliced medium
- 2 carrots, parsnips or turnips
- 1 handful of wild herbs
- 1 handful of dried cranberries or other available dried fruit
- 1 pound of venison meat, chunked or cubed
- 1/4 cup oil
Place venison in large pottery or ceramic bowl.
Mix vegetables, cranberries, and herbs together in another bowl and pour this mixture over the meat.
Let sit, covered, overnight, or at least 12 hours in the cold.
Remove meat, vegetables and cranberries and save the remaining juices.
Heat half of the fat in a skillet and brown venison for 3-4 minutes.
Heat remaining fat in another pan and fry the vegetables and cranberries lightly for 2-3 minutes.
Add fried meat into the other ingredients, stir in the juices and bring to the boil.
Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 2 hours.
- 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
- 1 cup strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or a combination of all three
- 1/2 cup crushed walnuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds or a combination of all three
- 1 quart water
- Maple syrup or sugar to taste (a modern addition because we just can’t eat anything without sugar in it)
Combine cornmeal, berries, crushed nuts, and the optional sweetener in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.