What Was Really On The Menu
At The First Thanksgiving
Quick! Think about Thanksgiving dinner. Bet you pictured a roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie; like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting or one of the Pioneer Woman cookbooks. It may surprise you to learn that these foods, with the possible exception of the turkey, were not served at the three-day harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621. If you're wondering what was served at the First Thanksgiving in America, read on to dig into a helping of history.
There are only two surviving primary sources that speak of the meal. One is an eyewitness account found in a letter written by one of the attendees, Edward Winslow, in which he records that the Wampanoag Indians brought five deer to the feast, making it likely for us to believe that one of the main courses of meat on the menu was venison. The other primary source is a manuscript by the colony's governor, William Bradford, in which he speaks in general terms about the harvest of 1621.
Fowl And Fish
We know that wild turkey was plentiful in the area at the time, as well as other birds, including ducks, geese, swans and passenger pigeons. According to Bradford's manuscript, Of Plymouth Plantation, he sent four men on a "fowling" mission days before the feast. They returned with a bountiful stock of game birds. Cod, eels and shellfish such as lobsters, clams and mussels were abundant in the waters nearby and were regularly eaten by the colonists. Culinary historians speculate that the deer and the birds were spit roasted on the first day, while the remains were thrown into pots, boiled and thickened with grain for pottage.
The Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to grow certain native crops. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, carrots, spinach, cabbage, squash and turnips. Corn was a staple, but it was not prepared as we eat it now. It would have been ground into cornmeal and boiled to make corn mush. The most striking absence would be that of the potato. Although it was a New World vegetable native to South America and introduced to the Europeans around 1570, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans around Plymouth Colony were probably unfamiliar with potatoes.
Fruits And Nuts
The woods around Plymouth Colony would have yielded an ample supply of fruits and nuts, contributing to a varied and extremely good diet for Eastern woodlands people. Indigenous to the region were plums, grapes, blueberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and of course, cranberries. However, the cranberries were not served as a sweet sauce for meat, because sugar was a precious commodity and the supply they carried across the ocean was probably exhausted by this time. The trees provided walnuts, beechnuts and chestnuts, which would have been used along with onions and herbs for stuffing the birds. No wheat flour in Plymouth meant no bread for the stuffing. It also meant no pie crust, so no pumpkin pie either. However, pumpkin was a regular part of their diet, usually roasted whole in the fire, scooped out and eaten.