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Now reading The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving

It wasn't turkey and cranberry sauce.

Earlier this year, my friend and I decided to put together a supper-club Thanksgiving. We wanted to make it “authentic”—something closer to what was eaten the first time the thanks were given than to the post-atomic age Rockwellian feast we all think of these days.

We started with the Internet, which led us to books, which led us to historical societies. So just how inaccurate is today’s archetypal Thanksgiving menu? First, let’s set the scene:

The modern Thanksgiving holiday is based off of a festival shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1621. The feast celebrated the colonists’ first successful harvest in the New World. While modern Thanksgiving always lands on the last Thursday of November, we found the original likely went down sometime earlier in autumn.

(I’ll note that Thanksgiving was originally a one-off. Though previous presidents called for a celebration of the holiday, Abraham Lincoln was the first to establish Thanksgiving as an annual holiday with a fixed date in 1863, when a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale convinced him that a nationally celebrated Thanksgiving holiday would unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. From then on, Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, typically on the last Thursday in November, but the date wasn’t made official until decreed by Congress in 1941.)

There are only two surviving documents that reference the original Thanksgiving harvest meal. The first was written by a man named Edward Winslow, who described a celebration of the colonists and some ninety natives, among them their chief, Massasoit. The Wampanoag brought along five freshly killed deer as a gift for the governor, and four colonists “killed as much fowle as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a weeke.” Everyone feasted upon this glut of venison and poultry for three days.

The second reference to the first Thanksgiving was by the aforementioned governor, William Bradford (he of the venison gift). In it, he describes a feast featuring a smorgasbord of cod and bass, all brought to the table with wild poultry. Bradford is also the first to mention the presence of flint, a tri-colored corn grown by the Native Americans, which was most likely eaten as cornbread or porridge.

These two sources contain all we know firsthand. The rest of the menu we can only piece together, based upon what was available, what both groups ate in times of celebration, and what the Native Americans would have (literally) brought to the table.

First and foremost, there would be wildfowl—most likely duck or geese, but potentially carrier pigeons or swans. Turkey might not have even been present at the first Thanksgiving unless somebody got lucky in the woods with a musket. The birds were probably stuffed with onions and nuts instead of the bread cubes and sausage more familiar to us today, then boiled (if they were a larger, older bird) or roasted over coals (if they were a younger, more tender specimen).

Seafood is a rare sight on a modern Thanksgiving table, but the colonists most likely had fish, eel, and shellfish (such as lobster and mussels) at their feast. We found sources speculating that the shellfish were served with “curds.” However, Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, dismisses this pairing as pure fiction. “Mussels, yes. Curds, no,” she said.

Vegetarians would not have gone hungry in 1621. Native crops such as peas, beans, squash, and the aforementioned flint corn would have likely have made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table, alongside crops brought over from England such as cabbage and carrots. In fact, there is some evidence that the Native Americans did teach the colonists how to plant beans, squash, and other local crops.

It is also worth noting what was not present at the first Thanksgiving feast. There were no cloud-like heaps of mashed potatoes, since white potatoes had not crossed in from South America. There was no gravy either, since the colonists weren’t producing flour. There was no sweet potato casserole, with mini marshmallows or without, since tuberous roots had not yet been introduced from the Caribbean.

Cranberries may have been incorporated into Wampanoag dishes to add tartness, but cranberry sauce as we know it seems unlikely. In 1621, refined sugar was prohibitively expensive in the colonies—especially in the quantities needed to make cranberry sauce.

The colonists didn’t have pumpkin pie, but pumpkins were probably present at the harvest feast. According to Wall, squash was probably stewed over a fire with vinegar, ginger, and spices until soft.

The Native Americans were adept at repurposing leftovers. “The meaty carcasses from one meal no doubt were simmered to yield broth for use in the next,” says Wall. Days two and three of the harvest feast were probably fueled by pottage, or stew, made from the leftover wildfowl bits and bones.

This year, as you’re digging into your green bean casserole and heaping your mashed potatoes into a soon-to-be-gravy-“lava”-filled volcano, be thankful. After all, you could be eating a heaping plateful of two-day-old pottage with a side of eel instead.