Today, the traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes any number of dishes: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. But if one were to create a historically accurate feast, consisting of only those foods that historians are certain were served at the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” there would be slimmer pickings. “Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there,” says Kathleen Wall. “These are absolutes.” Wall is a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts
Two primary sources—the only surviving documents that reference the meal—confirm that these staples were part of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, wrote home to a friend:
“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.”
William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding, “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
The following suggestion of the first Thanksgiving is based on research from Wall.
Our discussion begins with the bird. Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal, as it is today. Though it is possible the colonists and American Indians cooked wild turkey, goose or duck was the wildfowl of choice. Swan and passenger pigeons would have been available as well. Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them. A man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200
Small birds were often spit-roasted, while larger birds were boiled. It is possible that the birds were stuffed, though probably not with bread. (Bread, made from maize not wheat, was likely a part of the meal, but exactly how it was made is unknown.) The Pilgrims instead stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs. There is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts. In addition to wildfowl and deer, the colonists and Wampanoag probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels
The Wampanoag, like most eastern woodlands people, had a varied and extremely good diet. The forest provided chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts. They grew flint corn (multicolored Indian corn), and that was their staple. They grew beans, which they used from when they were small and green until when they were mature. They also had different sorts of pumpkins or squashes.
As we are taught in school, the Indians showed the colonists how to plant native crops. The English colonists plant gardens in March of 1620 and 1621. We don’t know exactly what’s in those gardens. But in later sources, they talk about turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkins as the sorts of things that they were growing.
All this, naturally, begs a follow-up question. So how did the Thanksgiving menu evolve into what it is today?
The Thanksgiving holiday, as we know it, took root in the mid-19th century. At this time, Edward Winslow’s letter, printed in a pamphlet called Mourt’s Relation, and Governor Bradford’s manuscript, titled Of Plimoth Plantation, were rediscovered and published. Boston clergyman Alexander Young printed Winslow’s letter in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, and in the footnotes to the resurrected letter, he somewhat arbitrarily declared the feast the first Thanksgiving.) There was nostalgia for colonial times, and by the 1850s, most states and territories were celebrating Thanksgiving.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, , a real trendsetter for running a household, was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln. She pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War, and, in 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.