What was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving?
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The usual Thanksgiving dinner has any number of dishes. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and candied yams. Cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. They may all be there. If we were to make the same feast made of foods that were served at the so-called "first Thanksgiving," there would be fewer choices.
"Wildfowl was there. Corn was there. It was in grain form for bread or for porridge. Venison was there," says Kathleen Wall.
Two primary sources show that these staples were part of the harvest celebration. They were shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony. This was in 1621. Edward Winslow was an English leader who attended. He wrote home to a friend:
"Our harvest being gotten in. Our governor sent four men on fowling. That so we might after a special manner rejoice together. After we had gathered the fruit of our labors. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms. Many of the Indians coming amongst us. And among the rest their greatest king Massasoit. With some ninety men. Whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer. Which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor. And upon the captain and others."
William Bradford was the governor that Winslow talked about. Bradford also told of the autumn of 1621. He added, "And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys. Of which, they took many, besides venison, etc."
What else might have been eaten at the 17th-century feast? That takes some digging. Wall is a culinarian at Plimoth Plantation. It is a living history museum. The museum is in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
She has to make educated guesses about history. To do this she studies cookbooks. And she looks at descriptions of gardens from the period. She also looks at archaeological remains. Those include pollen samples. They might clue her in to what the colonists were growing.
Turkey was not the main part of the meal. The colonists and American Indians may have cooked wild turkey. But Wall thinks that goose or duck was more likely.
Small birds were often spit-roasted. Larger birds were boiled.
"I also think some birds were boiled first. Then roasted to finish them off. Or things are roasted first. And then boiled," says Wall. "The early roasting gives them nicer flavor. It sort of caramelizes them on the outside. And makes the broth darker."
The birds may have been stuffed. If so, it probably was not with bread. Bread was made from maize not wheat. It was likely a part of the meal. But exactly how it was made is unknown.
What did the Pilgrims stuff the birds with instead? They used chunks of onion and herbs. "There is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts," says Wall.
The colonists and Wampanoag may also have had eels and shellfish. The shellfish might have included lobster. They may have had clams. Or they may have had mussels. "They were drying shellfish and smoking other sorts of fish," says Wall.
The Wampanoag had a "varied and extremely good diet," said Wall. The forest gave them chestnuts. It gave them walnuts and beechnuts. "They grew flint corn. And that was their staple. They grew beans. They used them from when they were small and green until when they were mature," says Wall. "They also had different sorts of pumpkins or squashes."
The Indians showed the colonists how to plant native crops. "The English colonists plant gardens in March of 1620 and 1621," says Wall. "We do not know exactly what is in those gardens. In later sources they talk about turnips. They talk about carrots and onions. And garlic and pumpkins as the sorts of things that they were growing."
The idea of making a spread of food like the one at the 1621 celebration becomes a process of taking things off of the menu.
"You look at what an English celebration in England is at this time. What are the things on the table? You see lots of pies in the first course. In the second course, meat and fish pies. To cook a turkey in a pie was not terribly uncommon," says Wall. "But the pastry is not there." The colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. That is right. No pumpkin pie! "That is a blank in the table for an English eye. So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat and more meat," says Wall.
Meat without potatoes, that is. White potatoes originated in South America. Sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean. They had not made it to North America yet. There would have been no cranberry sauce. It would be another 50 years before an Englishman wrote about boiling cranberries and sugar into a "Sauce to eat with meat."
How did the Thanksgiving menu grow into what it is today?
The Thanksgiving holiday that we know took root in the mid-19th century. Edward Winslow's letter was printed in a guide called Mourt's Relation. Gov. Bradford's script was titled Of Plimoth Plantation. It was found again and published.
Boston clergyman Alexander Young printed Winslow's letter in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. He wrote notes about the saved letter. In them he called the feast the first Thanksgiving. There was longing for colonial times. By the 1850s, most states and territories were celebrating Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of a women's magazine. It was called Godey's Lady's Book. It was a leading voice in making Thanksgiving a yearly event. She shared her idea with President Lincoln. She saw it as a way to bring the country together during the Civil War. In 1863, Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey's Lady's Book.
"A lot of the food that we think of like roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, even some of the mashed potato dishes, which were kind of exotic then are there," said Wall.