Pilgrims’s First Thanksgiving Had Radically Different Menu From Today’s Version

Wampanoag natives did feast on turkey, but much has changed over the years.

November 23, 2017 5:00 am
Painting by J.L.M. Ferris of the first Thanksgiving ceremony with Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621. (Getty Images)
Painting by J.L.M. Ferris of the first Thanksgiving ceremony with Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621. (Getty Images)

Of all the staples of a proper Thanksgiving feast, only turkey likely made it to the table on the very first one in October 1621.

In that historic feast to honor the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest in the New World, there would have been no candied yams, potato or pumpkin pie for the 90 Wampanoag natives and 53 European settlers in attendance.

To that end, Smithsonian gives plenty of reasons for which to be thankful by bringing back its deep dive into what made it onto the menu on that “First Thanksgiving.”

“Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there,” historian Kathleen Wall told the magazine in 2011. “These are absolutes.”

Some of the knowledge in the piece comes from letters written by attendees, including the famed correspondence from Edward Winslow to a friend, which detailed a gift of five deer brought by the dinner guests.

Wall said there was likely to be eels and lobster on the table. But while the indigenous population did grow pumpkins, the Pilgrims would not yet have had access to the butter and wheat flour they would need to make crusts for pies and tarts that were the rage back home. (So no pumpkin pies.)

“Also, there would have been no cranberry sauce. It would be another 50 years before an Englishman wrote about boiling cranberries and sugar into a “Sauce to eat with. . . .Meat,” according to Smithsonian.

The recipe for the development of Thanksgiving menu actually is more closely tied to the 19th Century.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to turn Thanksgiving as a national holiday — both to honor the United States’s colonial history and to unite a country divided by the Civil War. After he did so in 1863, Hale got to work on a series of magazine recipes and cookbooks — which included many of the staples still being served on Thanksgiving today.

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