A few years ago, I made my inner history nerd unbelievably giddy and spent a few weeks digging in to one question: What was actually eaten at the first Thanksgiving? The results were surprising (no turkey?!), illuminating, and just plain curious. So leading up to 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 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 fourth Thursday in 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 corn bread and porridge.
These two sources contain all we know firsthand about the first Thanksgiving food. 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 been 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 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.)
What Wasn't Served at the First Thanksgiving
It is also worth noting what was not present at the first Thanksgiving feast. There were no cloudlike heaps of mashed potatoes, since white potatoes had not yet crossed over from South America. There was no gravy either, since the colonists didn’t yet 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 50 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 would have been prohibitively expensive), the point was moot.
There Were, However, Pumpkins
No flour, no sugar—that's right, there was nary a pie. No apple, no pecan, no pumpkin at the first Thanksgiving table. Well, pumpkins were probably present, just most likely stewed with vinegar and currants.
So this year, as you’re digging in to 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.
A Few of Our Modern Thanksgiving Go-Tos
Very Lemony Brined Turkey
This lemony brined turkey has everything you love about the traditional version—crispy-golden skin and juicy, tender meat—with a little something extra: multiple kicks of lemon (for the brine and roasting), fresh ginger, and a hint of honey.
Our Best Pumpkin Roll
Pumpkin pie is a classic, but this spongy, fluffy pumpkin roll—a type of Swiss roll—is just as welcome on our Thanksgiving dessert table. Those pumpkin-y flavors really shine through thanks to the addition of pumpkin purée in the cake better (it also adds moisture), plus all the spices you'd expect, like cinnamon, ginger, and clove.
Brussels Sprouts With Bacon
Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without a green side or two, right? These tender-crisp Brussels sprouts come together in one big, easy batch in the oven along with bacon (yum), onion, garlic, and maple syrup.
Cranberry Curd Tart
"Curd is a sweet, creamy spread typically made with juice (such as lemon or orange), eggs, sugar, and butter," says chef and cookbook author Kenneth Temple. "It’s usually served as a topping for toast, biscuits, scones, and other baked goods." It also just so happens to make an excellent filling for tarts, as this fall-ready recipe proves.
A beloved family recipe passed down for as long as the recipe's developer, Cory Baldwin, can remember, Angel Corn is the ultimate Thanksgiving side dish. It's creamy, herby, corn-y, just a bit sweet, and baked to golden-brown perfection in the oven till it's slightly firm to the touch. Ready the casserole dish.
Instant Pot Buttermilk & Leek Mashed Potatoes
Mashed potatoes may not have been served at the first Thanksgiving, but they're an essential staple for most holiday tables today. This Instant Pot version just so happens to be one of the creamiest and most flavorful recipes out there—and it couldn't be any easier (you don't even have to drain the pot).
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!
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