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The First Feast Project, Part 5: Adding Some Soul to Thanksgiving

Read all posts from The First Feast Project series here.

Nothing can ruin a perfect plan, faster then input from others. Yes, other perspectives can be great. People sometimes see things you miss, but just as often they throw a monkey wrench in your vision. Such was the case as I pondered the answer, and underlying message of the question, “what else is on the menu?” 

To be fair to my friends, I should have expected the question. As detailed in post four, Disconnected, most people do not eat foods that harvested from the wild, or grown by their own hands. They don’t eat, venison or duck caught from the field. If it’s not from a grocery store, they don’t eat it. Beyond that point, myself and the guests are African-American. A traditional African-American Thanksgiving meal includes:  collard greens, sweet potato pie, candied yams, ham, or baked macaroni and cheese. None of these foods were eaten by the Indians or Pilgrims. When my dinner guests learned I did not plan on cooking any of those foods, I got that, “What you talking about Willis?” look of Different Strokes fame.

No amount of cajoling, explaining, or salesmanship on my part would move the core group from the idea of different food options. If I wanted to feed more than just myself and my brother, then a compromise--that is I had to give in—would be necessary. After a heated discussion, one friend asked a question, similar to the one that had lead down this road in the first place.

Kiara, have you given thought to the what the very first black people in America ate for thanksgiving?


The question brought me up short. Of course, I had not given it any thought. Who wants to think about that time in America, but it’s an intriguing question. The whole premise of Thanksgiving is giving thanks for what you do have. Every year people going through hard times are admonished to find the positive in their life and be thankful for it. How do you do that when you are literally considered property.

So a Bargain Was Struck

I would discover the foods the first blacks in America ate on Thanksgiving, and everyone would agree to picking foods from that list to add the one I had compiled already. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but as compromises went it was not a bad one.

Blacks, of course, were not at the First Thanksgiving feast. The slave trade in America had not yet begun. Once begun, few people tracked the day to day lives of the first slaves in America. Reading and writing was banned so there are few records or written journals. Those that exist focus more on the hardship of bondage, than food. Worse, Googling the question lead to way too many sites designed more to lambast America, than to talk about the foods eaten or life of slaves on Thanksgiving. The one exception is a site called Afro Culinaria. Put together by a man named, Michael W. Twitty, a food blogger. The site focuses exclusively on food, and “promoting African American food ways and its parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South.”

Twitty’s site is a wealth of information, and provided the back bone for information on Thanksgiving food life of blacks on the plantation, during Thanksgiving.

Until finding Twitty’s site, I made the false assumption that blacks ate the leftover from the Thanksgiving meal the slaves would have prepared for the plantations owners.  Slaves did certainly eat leftovers, but their diet was not restricted to them. According to the spotty resources on the subject collard greens were not a modern food staple for blacks. Collards greens, along with peas, lima beans, and cabbage were cultivated in gardens, slaves were allowed to have near their living quarters.

A surprising detail in the foods eaten is some plantation owners would give their slaves firearms so they could hunt for food before Thanksgiving. When reading this tidbit of information on Afroculinaria.com, I was as shocked as when I discovered lobster was on the menu in 1621. As shocking as it is to believe, a slave owner would allow his slaves to have a gun, if even only for a day or two, it is not too surprising to imagine that any slave would not be able to range too far afield from their home plantation. They could not risk wandering on the property of another plantation owner.

I think it’s safe to say that any successful hunt entailed smaller game like ducks, doves, or rabbits. In addition, it may surprise you to know that slaves were the primary marketers of chickens, and smaller game fowl like ducks. Chickens were a staple food source in Africa and so transplanted Africans were adept at raising the North American versions near their living quarters. Other than ducks and chickens, no other game birds or small game is mentioned specifically. Thus, we can only go with chicken and duck as definitive items.

The other meat mentioned is ham. Pigs were a well-established meat source during the height of the slave trade. They were and in many areas today, still are one of nature’s best waste disposal units. Hogs are the ultimate omnivore and would have been a main tool in getting rid of meat and vegetable offing’s.

Last, grain and starch foods eaten were sweet potatoes, corn bread dressing, and surprise, surprise macaroni and cheese.

Now that I knew what some of the foodstuffs blacks consumed in the past, I could add a few items—reluctantly—to the menu. These items would be a deviation from the original goal, but I could rationalize it in my mind. I needed guests, my guests wanted a few items they were used to waiting. I the foods items added would still be historical, and I could still hunt and grow the additions.

Ham, meant I could go out hunting more in order to get a wild hog. Collard greens were something I planned on growing in my garden anyway. The only problem areas were trying to keep my friends on point with the theme. The subject of peach cobbler as a dessert came up right away; an item not found on any of the early menus.

I had no doubt that in the coming weeks there would be more discussions about what to eat or not eat. Collaboration in any endeavor is tough, because you have to constantly sell your collaborators on your own vision and idea. My friends view this as all of us coming together for a Thanksgiving meal. I’m looking at it as all of us coming together to cook and eat a wonderful meal based on that historic feast.

Kiara Ashanti is originally from the cold state of New Jersey. He attended college in sunny Florida and graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in Speech Communication. He loves taking on new projects and is the author of over 200 articles ranging from trading securities, politics, social policy, and celebrity interviews. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.


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