What was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving? Traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, but the First Thanksgiving likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and venison. (Bettmann/Corbis)
What was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving?
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Today, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes any number of dishes: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. If we were to create a historically accurate feast consisting of foods that were served at the so-called "first Thanksgiving," there would be slimmer pickings.
 
"Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there," says Kathleen Wall.
 
Two primary sources confirm that these staples were part of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, 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, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding, "And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc."
 
Determining what else they might have eaten at the 17th-century feast takes some digging. To form educated guesses, Wall, a culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, studies cookbooks and descriptions of gardens from the period, archaeological remains such as pollen samples that might clue her in to what the colonists were growing.
 
Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal. It's possible the colonists and American Indians cooked wild turkey, but Wall suspects that goose or duck was more likely.
 
Small birds were often spit-roasted, while 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, sort of caramelizes them on the outside and makes the broth darker."
 
It is possible that the birds were stuffed, though probably not with bread. (Bread, made from maize not wheat, was likely a part of the meal, but exactly how it was made is unknown.) The Pilgrims instead stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs. "There is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts," says Wall.
 
In addition to wildfowl and deer, the colonists and Wampanoag probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels. "They were drying shellfish and smoking other sorts of fish," says Wall.
 
According to Wall, the Wampanoag, like most eastern woodlands people, had a "varied and extremely good diet." The forest provided chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts. "They grew flint corn, and that was their staple. They grew beans, which they used from when they were small and green until when they were mature," says Wall. "They also had different sorts of pumpkins or squashes."
 
As we are taught in school, the Indians showed the colonists how to plant native crops. "The English colonists plant gardens in March of 1620 and 1621," says Wall. "We don't know exactly what's in those gardens. But in later sources, they talk about turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkins as the sorts of things that they were growing."
 
To some extent, the exercise of reimagining the spread of food at the 1621 celebration becomes a process of elimination. "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 and in the second course, meat and fish pies. To cook a turkey in a pie was not terribly uncommon," says Wall. "But it is like, no, the pastry isn't there." The colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. (That's 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, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America. Also, 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 evolve into what it is today?
 
Wall explains that the Thanksgiving holiday, as we know it, took root in the mid-19th century. At this time, Edward Winslow's letter, printed in a pamphlet called Mourt's Relation, and Gov. Bradford's manuscript, titled Of Plimoth Plantation, were rediscovered and published. Boston clergyman Alexander Young printed Winslow's letter in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, and in the footnotes to the resurrected letter, he somewhat arbitrarily declared the feast the first Thanksgiving. There was nostalgia for colonial times, and by the 1850s, most states and territories were celebrating Thanksgiving.
 
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. She pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. In 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.
 
Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey's Lady's Book. She also published close to a dozen cookbooks.
 
"A lot of the food that we think of - 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.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is our Thanksgiving menu different from the first Thanksgiving’s menu?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (16)
  • jacelynd-
    11/23/2015 - 12:59 p.m.

    The first thanksgiving started in 1621 and that is when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Also another fact is that how they got Thanksgiving to catch on over the years. In 1621 a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow kept writing a letter to a friend telling that person of what the Pilgrims have been doing with the Wampanoags at the feast.
    What I am wondering about is how did Edward Winslow mail the letter to his friend? Also another question is that how did the Pilgrims find the Wampanoags?
    That the Pilgrims and Wampanoags had so much food that they had a hard time picking what they wanted to eat first.

  • smithemmah-
    11/23/2015 - 01:00 p.m.

    one important fact is that thanks giving did not have most of the food we have now.
    another important fact is that most people think that they had a big feast but they did not have a lot to pick.
    one last fact is they might of taken birds and stuffed them with different types of veges.

    one question 1 have is why is thanks giving on the first thanks giving.
    another question is why did the main food now is turkey and then it was duck.

    one surprising thing is that the different potatoes were all from different places.

  • kylej-
    11/23/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    A really important fact in this artical is that they had a small amount of food since now in days we have so many choices at thanks giving.Another really important fact is that the turkey wasnt the main course of the meal at thanks giving it was goose or duck.Also another important fact is that there were no cranberry sauce at that thankgiving when its a big thing at nows thanksgiving.2 questions that i have about the artical is Why was there seafood at the first thanksgiving? and How long did it take to make the whole process of getting the food.I think a suprising detail is that how the evolution of food has changed since the first thanksgiving.

  • tanyap-
    11/23/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    I think that the 3 most important facts in this story is that the first thanksgiving didn't have a turkey. It was most likely duck or goose, they had a slim picking for what they wanted to eat and that president Lincoln made thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. One question that i have is if the wampanoags and the pilgrims ever got into a fight after the first thanksgiving? Another question i have is if they ever had turkey after thanksgiving. One surprising detail in the story is that at the first thanksgiving they had a lot of fish and seafood.

  • lilym-mcd
    11/25/2015 - 11:27 a.m.

    The current Thanksgiving menu is different from the original because over time, the less elaborate first selection became more elaborate, and the modern one was born. The article says, ""A lot of the food that we think of - 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." This shows that the food we think of as Thanksgiving is actually not the original.

  • efrenq-ali
    12/01/2015 - 11:44 a.m.

    Why are there certain types of foods on thanksgiving?

  • armandoc-ali
    12/01/2015 - 11:47 a.m.

    They liked turkey because it went well with the other foods.

  • alexisa-ali
    12/01/2015 - 11:58 a.m.

    Why don't some people celebrate Thanksgiving

  • gabrielp-ali
    12/01/2015 - 12:00 p.m.

    Its different because the really couldn't cook the stuff that we could.

  • efrenq-ali
    12/01/2015 - 12:06 p.m.

    The first menu talks about stuffing,turkey,mashed patatoes and pumpkin pie and the seconf menu says turnips,carrots,onions,garlic,and pumpkins.

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