A typical American Thanksgiving meal includes things like roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. But what did they eat 400 years ago, at the first Thanksgiving, in 1621?
That was when the English settlers (Pilgrims) and the Native Americans (Wampanoag Indians) had a feast to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest.
There were about 50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag at the celebration. It might have happened in late September, instead of November. The feast lasted for three days! So there was a lot of food. But what was on the menu? We don’t know for sure, but history can tell us a few things.
Turkey and venison
According to history.com, four men were sent out before the feast to hunt for fowl. Chances are, they got some wild turkeys, since there were plenty in the area. It’s possible they feasted on other birds including ducks, geese and swans.
The Wampanoag also hunted and brought five deer to the feast. The deer were probably roasted on a spit or made into a stew.
Instead of stuffing made of bread, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.
Fruits and Vegetables
The Wampanoag had helped the Pilgrims learn to plant crops in their new land. Since the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the first harvest, fruits and vegetables were no doubt part of the meal. The feast probably included vegetables like onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and maybe peas. Corn was also part of the first harvest, but it was prepared differently. In those days, the corn was removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge and sometimes sweetened with molasses.
There were probably cranberries in some dishes, which the Native American ate and also used as a natural dye. However, there wasn’t cranberry sauce or relish. That’s because the sacks of sugar that the Pilgrims had brought with them across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were probably gone by the fall of 1621.
The other fruits that were common in the area and probably on the table included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries and raspberries.
Fish and Shellfish
One thing that might not be on your Thanksgiving table but was part of the first Thanksgiving meal was seafood. Mussels were easy to harvest on the rocks along the New England shoreline. The colonists often ate mussels with curds, a dairy product that was similar to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast, fished by the Pilgrims or brought to the feast by the Wampanoag.
No one was “passing the taters” at the first Thanksgiving, since there were no mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes at the meal. Potatoes were not yet cultivated in New England at that time. The Wampanoag might have brought other plant roots that they regularly ate, such as Indian turnips and groundnuts.
Both the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate pumpkins and other home-grown squashes—but there was no butter or wheat flour for making pie crust. Also, they didn’t have an oven for baking. They may have made their own version by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting them whole in hot ashes.