Have you ever wondered what the Pilgrims and Indians really ate for their first Thanksgiving feast? Well, we know it probably wasn’t a turkey stuffed with bread, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, or pumpkin pie! But what was really on the menu at the famous banquet, and which of today’s favorites didn’t earn a place at the table until later in the holiday’s 400-year history?
After doing some research, I found that there really isn’t an exact account of what was eaten. The only surviving documents that reference the meal was taken into account by Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim who attended the first feast and wrote home to a friend saying. . .
“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.”
Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s attendees almost certainly got their fill of many types of meat. Other proclaimed sources of animal protein would have consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today’s menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams, and oysters might also have been part of the feast.
Ok, so we know they probably ate lean, organic animal protein. But, what else did they eat?
Well, they would have eaten vegetables such as onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, squashes such as pumpkins, and perhaps peas. Corn might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses. What about potatoes, both white and sweet? The white potato, native of South America, and sweet potato from the Caribbean hadn’t arrived in the colonies yet.
Fruits eaten would have been blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries all of which are indigenous to New England. I’m guessing the Pilgrims wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes because sugar was pretty much non-existent in the colonies.
For dessert? Pumpkin pie as we know it today obviously was non-existent during the feast because they didn’t have butter, wheat flour, or sugar to make the pastry. Most importantly, there weren’t ovens in which to bake the pie. However, according to some accounts, they could have improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.
It’s clear the menu initially served had a completely different nutritional footprint than our modern foods. But, whether we’re considering the original Thanksgiving fare or today’s traditions, keep in mind it’s very easy to serve delicious, satisfying foods without sacrificing our commitment to healthy eating. Here’s a link from the Food Network which includes 38 recipes that spin on traditional Thanksgiving foods and even includes vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Although there are many differences between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the holiday we celebrate today, the one tradition that remains constant is the celebration of being thankful.
Maryanne Riege, Certified Holistic Health Coach, is the newest member of the Ommani complementary practitioner team. She works with adults and children age 16 and over assisting, supporting, directing people on their journey toward a healthy lifestyle and diet. Schedule an appointment by calling 262.695.5311.