What Did They Eat at the First Thanksgiving?

When Thanksgiving rolls around, you can depend on many of the same favorite treats coming back to the table: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and turkey, among them. The holiday we celebrate today bears little resemblance to the first Thanksgiving, and it has come to mean something very different. While there are a host of variations on what actually happened at the first Thanksgiving, it is generally agreed upon that pilgrims and Wampanoag natives gathered together. What was on their plates?
We know what was most likely not on their plates. The first celebrators did not eat turkey, ham, chicken, eggs, milk, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn on the cob. They simply did not have these foods available; it is thought that a recipe for pumpkin pie did not exist then. Pumpkins were cut into chunks and stewed instead. Many of our “traditional” Thanksgiving foods were nowhere near the first feast.
We do know, through primary documents, that the pilgrims and natives had venison and wild fowl. They may have also had some of the following delicacies at the three day feast:
• Cod, eel, and lobster
• Wild turkey, duck, goose, crane, partridge, and eagles
• Seal
• Wheat flour
• Maize, or Indian Corn
• Pumpkins, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, carrots, and radishes
• Walnuts, chestnuts, acorns
• Plums and grapes
• Liverwort, dried currants, parsnips, and olive oil

It’s all a far cry from our dishes now, which lean heavily on butter, cream, and gravy. There were no ovens with which to bake bread or pies, and open fires were used to roast the meat and to boil water for the stewed vegetables.  The first celebrants likely filled up on meat and were satisfied. Surviving journals recount that at least five deer were killed, and enough birds were killed to feed the party consisting of 53 pilgrims and 90 natives for nearly a week.

What did the celebrants have to drink? Probably just water. Historian Kathleen Curtin says, “In their first year, the English colonists had grown a few acres of barley, so it is possible that some beer or ale may have been brewed by the end of harvest time—but given how long it takes to brew and ferment beer, this seems unlikely. Wine, considered a finer beverage than beer, may have been brought across by some travelers on the Mayflower. It was frequently mentioned in later accounts of supplies to the colonies. By the mid-1600s, cider would become the main beverage of New Englanders, but in 1621 Plymouth, there were not any apples yet.”

The food was probably not at all bland; the English were adept at using spices and herbs and liked to flavor their meat with sauces. The foods that we now associate with Thanksgiving wasn’t in evidence until the 1700s, and the menu gradually evolved to include standard fare, such as pumpkin and apple pies, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce, and bread stuffing. There is one likely similarity between our feasts and theirs: we both probably enjoyed a good turkey leg!

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