Have you ever wondered what was served at the first Thanksgiving? Probably not the roast turkey, certainly no mashed potatoes.
Many people who spend the week frenziedly cooking the traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberries, may be surprised to discover how much that “traditional” dish has changed over the years. If you want to know what the first Thanksgiving menu is, keep on reading this article!
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What Was Served At The First Thanksgiving?
Traditional Thanksgiving dinner today we are all too familiar with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffed meat, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and marshmallows. But historically accurate, the first Thanksgiving dinner would be slimmer pickings.
So, what was served at the first Thanksgiving?
To begin with, historians scoured old cookbooks and studied archaeological remains from the Northeast and looked at what animals and plants existed in New England in the fall of 1621. Perhaps most notable are the surviving letters written by two colonists, Governors William Bradford and Edward Winslow, detailing the feast.
What was served at the first Thanksgiving? One thing is for sure, venison was present on the first Thanksgiving. In a letter to a friend back home, Bradford described the Wampanoags herding five deer to the party.
Turkey was likely not the main dish of the pilgrims and their guests. Instead, some kind of wildfowl, most likely duck or goose, was the main meat served with the meal. Edward Winslow described the events before the party as follows:
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.
It also makes sense because in the fall these birds will be abundant because it is the migratory season. At the time, wild game was more esteemed than “butcher’s meat” because hunting and protecting these birds took more effort.
In these early days, multicolored corn was the main grain used frequently by the Pilgrims because Wampanoag had taught them how to grow and harvest before. If you forgot you can review the Thanksgiving history here. It is thought that the corn may have had the core removed and served as bread or porridge.
Fish and shellfish
If someone asks you what was served at the first Thanksgiving, add fish and shellfish to the list.
Another difference from modern Thanksgiving is that seafood is abundant at the first feast. Because the colony’s location makes it easy to catch mussels, and that first Thanksgiving feast probably included a variety of seafood, from eel and bass to lobster. Edward Winslow described the abundance of seafood at the feast:
Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter.
The pumpkin was used during the first Thanksgiving but not in pie form. The reason is first, the settlers had not yet built the oven. Second, they had no food that comes close to the butter or dairy products needed to make the crust.
However, there are many varieties of pumpkins and squash native to the New England area that have been used for food. In fact, during its early years, pumpkin was considered a source of sustenance for the Pilgrims because it was so easy to grow and plentiful.
A veggie bonus will appear on the Thanksgiving table. In the Northeast region, vegetables including squash, radishes, carrots, onions, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and turnips will be widely available. In the 17th century, these crops were called “roots” or “pot herbs,” not vegetables.
What Wasn’t Served On First Thanksgiving
Above are what was served at the first Thanksgiving, so what wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving?
According to Bradford’s account in the fall of 1621, it was clear that wild turkeys roamed the areas surrounding the Plymouth colony. Although it appears that wild turkeys are commonly eaten, regarding the first Thanksgiving feast, his documents and correspondence didn’t mention the preparation and serving of turkey meat.
Cranberries are native to New England, as are other fruits like raspberries, gooseberries and blueberries. Both natives and colonists used the berries as food and natural dyes. However, it was not until about 50 years after the first Thanksgiving that there was written proof of an Englishman discovering how to boil cranberries and sugar into a sauce.
There wouldn’t be anything made from bread to be found because the Pilgrims lacked wheat. Instead, a mixture of onions, herbs, and nuts could have been used to add flavor to the meat.
No mashed or baked potatoes – and no sweet potato stew either. At that time, there weren’t any potatoes grown in North America. Sweet potatoes are native to the Caribbean and white potatoes are native to South America. Neither of these tubers is thought to have reached the United States. Wampanoags might have brought with them other roots they normally eat, such as Indian turnips and groundnuts.
Pancakes are one of the indispensable dishes in the New England Thanksgiving meal today. However, it was not present at the first party. Because, in the earliest years, wheat would be hard to find. Instead, the crust would be made from whole grain rye, which gave the crust a hard and chewy texture that could really stand up without a pan.
Now you know what was served at the first Thanksgiving. This year, during dinner, you will have something to share with your family and friends. Surely, people will be amazed by your knowledge. Happy Thanksgiving!