What the Pilgrims REALLY Ate on the First Thanksgiving?

turkeyEvery year on Thanksgiving we stuff ourselves with the perfectly roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce and all the desserts we can fit into our bellies. Then we sit around watching football and hanging out with family. All in all, it’s a nice tradition and not a bad way to spend a Thursday afternoon but have you ever wondered what they ate in 1621 at that first Thanksgiving when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrated together?

While there are no home movies or printed menu of the first Thanksgiving to tell us exactly what was eaten, there are a few things we know from historical accounts of the times. It is well known that William Bradford sent a group on a “fowling” mission in preparation of the three-day celebration. Fowling could have very well meant wild turkey (the bird not the alcoholic beverage) or it could have meant ducks, geese or swan since they were commonly eaten. But what else might they have eaten?


Deer: It has been recorded that the Wampanoag Indians brought 5 deer as an offering, so it could be assumed that venison was roasted and served at the first Thanksgiving celebration. I’d think to not prepare would have been insulting to the Wampanoag.

Fruits and Veggies: Local vegetables that were indigenous to the area were onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, peas and corn. The corn would have been made into cornmeal and boiled into mush, sweetened by molasses.

Fruits included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and cranberries. But if there was cranberry sauce at the first autumn harvest celebration, it was tart because by 1621, the Pilgrims were running low on sugar. The cranberry sauce we are accustomed to didn’t make an appearance for another 50 years.

Fish: In 1621, seafood like mussels would have been abundant in New England. The first Thanksgiving might have also included lobster, bass, clams and oysters. That explains the origination of the popularity of oyster dressing.

Potatoes, in any form, were probably not at the first Thanksgiving. The Spanish first encountered potatoes in South America and brought them back to Europeans in 1570. However, when the Pilgrims left to the Americas the potato hadn’t gained enough popularity to make the voyage with them. New England Native Americans are more likely to have had turnips.

Last but not least, pumpkin pie was probably not at the first Thanksgiving. While both Pilgrims and Native Americans ate pumpkins, there was no butter or flour to make a pie nor was there any ovens to bake one in. They may have however hollowed out pumpkins, filling the insides with milk, honey and spices to make a custard that they roasted in hot ashes. Hey, whatever works, right?

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving side dish?

Image via Flickr/ Chrisbkes

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