Thanksgiving abundance in 1621

For most Americans, a "traditional" Thanksgiving meal includes a turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie (or sweet potato pie if you hail from the South). While there are numerous regional and ethnic variations, this basic menu has not changed much in the last 200 years. But our modern holiday fare bears little resemblance to the food eaten at the three-day 1621 harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony, the event now recalled as the "First Thanksgiving," according to Kathleen a. Curtin, food historian, Plimoth Plantation.


The Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists often ate wild turkey, however it was not specifically mentioned in connection with that1621 harvest celebration. Edward Winslow said that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of "fowl" - more likely ducks and geese. Yes, the Wampanoag and English did occasionally stuff the birds and fish, typically with herbs, onions or oats (the English). If cranberries were served at the harvest celebration, they appeared in Wampanoag dishes, or possibly to add tartness to an English sauce. It would be 50 years before an Englishman mentioned boiling this New England berry with sugar for a "Sauce to eat with ...Meat." Potatoes, which originated in South America, had not yet made their way into the diet of the Wampanoag in 1621. Pumpkins were probably served but not pumpkin pie, since the fledgling Plymouth Colony probably did not possess the ingredients to make piecrust (butter & wheat flour) nor an oven in which to bake it. And there were no apples.


What was served? The only contemporary description of the event by Edward Winslow tells us that they had seasonal wild fowl and the venison brought by the Wampanoag and presented to key Englishmen. Winslow was eloquent about the bounty of his new home - lobsters, eels, mussels, oysters, grapes, white and red, strawberries, gooseberries, and raspas. Though not specifically mentioned as a food on the menu, corn -- the colorful hard flint corn that the English often referred to as Indian corn -- was certainly part of the feasts. The English acquired their first seed corn by helping themselves to a cache of corn from a Native storage pit on one of their initial explorations of Cape Cod. (They later paid the owners for this "borrowed" corn.)  In September and October, a variety of both dried and fresh vegetables were available to the colonists. The produce from the gardens of New Plymouth likely included what were then called "herbs:" parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried cultivated beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as native cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.


The typical Thanksgiving dinner menu is actually more than 200 years younger than that 1621 celebration and reflects both the holiday's New England roots and a Victorian nostalgia for an imaginary time when hearth and home, family and community, were valued over progress and change. While many elements of the modern holiday menu are very different, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both. The impulse to share hospitality with others and celebrate and give thanks for abundance transcends the menu. From our house at Food Processing, we wish you a safe and Happy Thanksgiving.