The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving


In the fall of 1651, the surviving members of the Plymouth colony (the pilgrims) shared a feast with the local Wampanoag tribe. This celebration of the harvest and good relations has been celebrated ever since. Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until 1941. Until Norman Rockwell's "freedom from want" painting was created in 1943, there was little conversation about what the meal should look like.

The First Thanksgiving, by Jean Gerome Ferris

Today, a wide assortment of dishes grace the Thanksgiving table, from fried turkey to sweet potato casserole to macaroni and cheese. But what did the first Thanksgiving look like? If an enterprising sportsman wanted to, could they reproduce the meal in question?

In short, yes, yes, we can. Let's put on our buckle hats and go through the checklist of what the pilgrims ate and didn't eat on the first Thanksgiving.


Turkey. Thanks to conservation efforts, Massachusetts is once again home to large numbers of turkeys. While these wild birds don't have the white meat ratio of a butterball, they do make for a rewarding fall hunt.Wild or frozen, turkey is always at the table

Ducks. William Bradford mentions waterfowl was eaten at the feast too. Geese, sea ducks, coots, and migratory ducks would all have been options at this point in the year. There wasn't enough wheat for stuffing, so birds would have been stuffed with fruits and onions. In reflection, that sounds like a lovely way to dress a whole duck.


Venison. It was mentioned that five deer were brought to the gathering that day. These were probably spit-roasted over a fire. In many states, November is the beginning of deer season, and I'm sure a few households will be serving venison this year for just that reason.


Ham. While Hernando De Soto introduced hogs to the united states in 1539, they hadn't spread far enough north for folks in Plymouth to get a taste of spiral sliced ham.


Seafood. The pilgrims and Wampanoag had a spread of seafood at their Thanksgiving. Lobsters, muscles, and quahogs (surf clams) could all be harvested from the shoreline. Codfish, flounder, and striped bass were also noted as being consumed. An amusing tidbit is that lobster was so plentiful in colonial America that there was a law that you couldn't serve prisoners lobster more than three times a week.


Potato. For fear of sounding like a hobbit, I will just say that there were no potatoes in North America in the 1500s. No boiled, mashed or stuck in stew potatoes. Potatoes are from South America and had only recently been brought to Europe.


Cornbread. Cornbread, cornmeal, corn mush. The pilgrims and the Wampanoag survived on the brightly colored native corn. In New England, the corn harvest is between July and August, so any corn brought to this gathering would have been dried and turned into a meal.

 Native corn and meal is still available from specialty stores.

Cranberry sauce. This is a half yes, half no. Cranberries were a native plant and would have been eaten often. But, sugar would have been scarce for the pilgrims, so these tart berries would have been eaten just as is.


Pumpkin pie. Pumpkins and other gourds were consumed at the feast. These would have been roasted and eaten hot, possibly mashed. With no sugar and no flour or lard, there was no pie. Luckily this means no argument over whipped cream or cool whip.


Additional items that would have been eaten include berries, grapes, onions, carrots, beans, squash, and cabbage. Carrots and cabbage were introduced by the pilgrims, while beans and corn were both native.


Lots of meat and no potatoes on the menu for Thanksgiving if you want to host a "traditional meal." As a hunter, you could bring all manner of game to the table, and it would fit right in. While fancy sauces and sous vide preparations are enjoyed today, spit-roasted meat is always a hit. For sea bass or flounder, a fisherman who doesn't live close to the ocean can substitute trout or perch. Freshwater fish may not have been on the menu per se, but it wouldn't have been refused either. Fruits, nuts, and berries can all be foraged by the hobbyist forager. If you felt enterprising enough, even cattails can be used to make flour, so it looks like you may well have a primitive pumpkin pie after all.


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