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The First Feast Project, Part 2: America’s Very First Thanksgiving Menu

 

Read Part 1 of the First Feast series: "Tracking the First Thanksgiving Feast."

Roasted turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, honeyed ham, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and if you’re of African-American descent, collard greens, and baked macaroni and cheese. These are the primary items for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. However, the term “traditional” deserves an asterisk next to it. That’s because a good deal of the foods we associate with Thanksgiving did not make it on to the menu until well into the 20th century.          

The foods the Indians and Pilgrims ate were different from the ones most of us eat each year. The most complete sources on the menu items I found were History.com, the Smithsonian and Plimoth.org; a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of the first American settlers. There were few records kept at the time, but two texts are referenced by most historians.

The first is from a letter written by Edward Winslow dated December 12, 1621.

Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. 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. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. 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. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty. 2

The second description comes from historian William Bradford in his History of Plymouth Planation, 20 years after the fact, but not discovered until 1854. Apparently the volume was looted during the Revolutionary War (damn Redcoats).

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.3

From these two reports we can gather definitive information on a few of the food items eaten. Winslow’s account makes it plain the Indians gifted the Pilgrims with five deer. So venison is on the menu. Venison is not, however, something most Americans think of as a dinner item for Thanksgiving. Plenty of hunters, particularity in the Mid-West, eat venison each year. However, the country as a whole does not. For many that would be the first surprise.  Added to the venison, according to Winslow, were fowl, wheat, barley, and Indian corn. The corn would not, however, have been corn on the cob. Indians usually cooked corn that had been ground and cooked into a porridge dish.

The Winslow account offers some information, but does leave questions. Fowl is a vague term. Turkey is not specifically mentioned. So where did the grand bird come into play. Without skipping to how Thanksgiving became a holiday, you could start with thinking about what was available. At first blush it could be easy to think of Pilgrims as farmers. Certainly the history and story, I believe most Americans grew up with, is one in which the Indians saved the Pilgrims, after a bad harvest. I.e. their crops failed. There is some truth to this, but the Pilgrims were at heart foragers. They farmed, but they also hunted. When considering what they could have eaten, its best to think of what wild game was readily available to them.

At that time fowl would have been any number of birds; wild turkey, ducks, geese, even swans.  The Pilgrims would have brought chickens with them on the boats, so they may have had access to eggs and chicken meat.

Another major foraged food item would have been seafood. Yet, again we have a food that most people associate with Thanksgiving. Specifically, cod and bass as mentioned by Bradford. Other seafood readily available were: eels, clams, mussels, and lobster.

Yes, Lobster!

This was the biggest surprise for me. I cannot think of anyone that has ever suggested Lobster as a Thanksgiving menu item.  The truth is that lobster was not only readily available, it was easy to get. In the time of the Pilgrims, lobsters were literally everywhere. They often just washed ashore, making them easy pickings for the Pilgrims and Indians. 

Other foodstuffs that Pilgrims regularly ate and therefore could be reasonably be added to the menu list are nuts, walnuts, squash, beans, leeks, carrots, onions, sorrel as well as herbs. Fruits like berries and strawberries were growing wild at that time, and would have undoubtedly been a regular staple of their diet.

In summary the First Thanksgiving feast likely had the following items:

• seafood: cod, bass, eel, clams, lobster, mussels
• wild fowl: turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles (possibly)
• meat: venison
• grains: wheat, Indian corn
• vegetables: pumpkin, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes, carrots, parsnips
• fruits: raspberries, strawberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, cranberries
• nuts: black walnuts, chestnuts, acorns
• herbs and seasonings: olive oil, liverwort, leeks, dried currants, sorrel, thyme

One thing to note on the list is what is not listed. Pigs and hogs were not on the menu. The first hogs brought here were introduced in Florida by the Spanish years later. The only pork the colonist would have had was salted pork used for the journey to the New World. Any left over from the 66-day journey would have been eaten that first winter. There was no beef. Potatoes were not on the menu. They were not introduced to North America yet. Collard greens, candied yams, sweet potatoes, none were on the menu that faithful day in 1621.           

Even with the foods from a modern menu, absent, the list of items is daunting. Some of the items like gooseberries and cod, are not available wild in Florida, where I live. Adjustments may have to be made.

In looking at the list here is what I have decided to include in italics:

• seafood: cod, bass, eel, clams, lobster, mussels
• wild fowl: turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles (possibly)
• meat: venison
• grains: wheat, Indian corn
• vegetables: pumpkin, peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes, carrots, parsnips
• fruits: raspberries, strawberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, cranberries
• nuts: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns
• herbs and seasonings: olive oil, liverwort, leeks, dried currants, sorrel, thyme

That’s the menu. In the next post I’ll tell you how I’m doing it. 

Resources

Mayflower History

Photo credit: Satya Murphy

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 Kiara's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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