For many Americans, the Thanksgiving meal has become something of a buffet of seasonal dishes to pick and choose from when filling up a plate (for the first or second time). The often copious leftovers eaten in the ensuing days are one of the few similarities between the modern Thanksgiving meal and the original Plymouth feast in 1621 that lasted three days.
The quintessential American Thanksgiving meal includes seasonal dishes such as roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But how this compare to what was likely served almost 400 years ago?
While no records exist of the exact menu, 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 event. Wild turkey was a common protein for both English settlers and Native Americans. It is likely that the hunters also returned with ducks, geese, and swan.
Turkey without stuffing? It happened. Instead of a bread-based stuffing, it is reasonable to assume that native herbs, onions, or nuts may have been cooked with the birds for extra flavor.
Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on an open spit and that some of the meat was used to create a hearty venison 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. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas.
Corn was plentiful during the harvest season, but it was prepared very differently– no corn on the cob or corn pudding. 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 may have been sweetened with molasses.
Regional fruits included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. And the cranberry sauce? The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes. 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
Seafood was one of the staples of the first meal – the coast was teeming with bass, lobster, clams, and oysters. 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.
Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. It would be over fifty years before these staples of the modern meal were introduced -white potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America.
New England’s native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as turnips, squash, and groundnuts, chestnuts in particular. Most of these sides would have been served roasted.
While both Native Americans and the Pilgrims enjoyed pumpkin, the possibility of pumpkin pie was out. The colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Even if they did, the settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking.
No pumpkin pie?! So what did they do instead? 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.
Whatever your meal consists of this year, I am thankful to all of my clients, family, friends, and readers and wish you all a wonderful, peaceful, and safe thanksgiving.