A few years ago, I made my inner history nerd unbelievably giddy and spent a few weeks digging into one question: What was actually eaten at the first Thanksgiving? The results were surprising (no turkey?), illuminating, and just plain curious. So on this last Thursday in November, I thought I'd give you something to chew on besides what's on your table. First, let's set the scene:
The modern Thanksgiving holiday is based off of a festival shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native American tribe at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1621. The feast purportedly celebrated the colonists’ first successful harvest in the New World. While modern Thanksgiving always lands on the last Thursday of November, the original went down sometime earlier in autumn, closer to harvest time.
(Parenthetically, I’ll note that Thanksgiving was originally a one-off. Abraham Lincoln was the first to bring back Thanksgiving in 1863, when a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale convinced him that a nationally celebrated Thanksgiving holiday would unite the country in the aftermath 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. They describe a feast of freshly-killed deer, assorted wildfowl, a bounty of cod and bass, and flint, a native variety of corn harvested by the Native Americans, which was eaten as cornbread and 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. That’s right—turkey might not have even present at the first Thanksgiving. The birds were probably stuffed with onions and nuts instead of the bread cubes and sausage more familiar to us today, then boiled or roasted.
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.
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 vegetables brought over from England, such as cabbage and carrots. In fact, just like what you learned in kindergarten, there is some evidence that the Native Americans did teach the colonists how to plant beans, squash, and other local crops. (If you want to learn more about indigenous American cooking, check out our interview with a Sioux chef.)
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 yet crossed in from South America. There was no gravy either, since the colonists didn’t have mills to produce 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 it would be another fifty years before someone first wrote about cooking them with sugar to make a “sauce to eat with… meat.”—the now-ubiquitous cranberry sauce. Also, since there was probably no refined sugar in the colonies in 1621 (it was prohibitively expensive), the point was moot.
No flour, no sugar—that's right, there was nary a pie, apple, pecan, or pumpkin, at the first Thanksgiving table! However, pumpkins were probably present, most likely stewed with vinegar and currants.
So 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 potage with a side of eel, instead.
This article is an adapted version of the one originally published on LuckyPeach.com (RIP).
Which modern Thanksgiving dish are you most thankful for? Let us know in the comments!