Just how did the Pilgrims give thanks? Joanne Camas gives us the story behind the story.
By Joanne Camas
Photo courtesy of Plimoth Plantation
For most people, enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin for Thanksgiving is as traditional and American as, well, apple pie. But how did the Pilgrims really celebrate on what we now regard as the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621? Is our celebration — and traditional menu — truly akin to that enjoyed by the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag Indian guests?
In a word, no. The only written record of the famous meal tells us that the harvest celebration lasted three days and included deer and wildfowl. Beyond that, culinary historians such as Kathleen Curtin at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts rely on period cookbooks and journals, Wampanoag oral histories, paintings from the time, and archaeological evidence.
"Most of today's classic Thanksgiving dishes weren't served in 1621," says Curtin. "These traditional holiday dishes became part of the menu after 1700. When you're trying to figure out just what was served, you need to do some educated guesswork. Ironically, it's far easier to discern what wasn't on the menu during those three days of feasting than what was!"
"All real historians need to be detectives," Curtin says, talking about her job as food historian for Plimoth Plantation. "Like a good mystery, new pieces sometime pop up that give you a fresh angle on an old story. I feel very passionate about the history of Thanksgiving because the real story is so much more interesting than the popular myth."
On and Off the Menu
So, popular myths aside, what can be ruled out of the equation from the English transplants' table? Potatoes — white or sweet — would not have been featured on the 1621 table, and neither would sweet corn. Bread-based stuffing was also not made, though the Pilgrims may have used herbs or nuts to stuff birds.
Instead, the table was loaded with native fruits like plums, melons, grapes, and cranberries, plus local vegetables such as leeks, wild onions, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and squash. (English crops such as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, onions, carrots, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme might have also been on hand.) And for the starring dishes, there were undoubtedly native birds and game as well as the Wampanoag gift of five deer. Fish and shellfish were also likely on the groaning board.
There is no concrete way to know if they had any roast turkey that day, but we do know there were plenty of wild turkeys in the region then, "and both the native Wampanoag Indians and English colonists ate them," writes Curtin in Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from the Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. That doesn't explain why the big, ungainly bird has become the de facto traditional centerpiece around which the entire meal is built, but at least it gives us a feeling of authenticity to imagine that America's forefathers might have been gnawing on a crispy turkey leg, just like we do nearly four centuries later.
As for beverages to wash down the feast, Curtin says the Pilgrims likely drank just water. "In their first year, the English colonists had grown a few acres of barley, so it is possible that some beer or ale may have been brewed by the end of harvest time — but given how long it takes to brew and ferment beer, this seems unlikely.
"Wine, considered a finer beverage than beer, may have been brought across by some travelers on the Mayflower. It was frequently mentioned in later accounts of supplies to the colonies. By the mid-1600s, cider would become the main beverage of New Englanders, but in 1621 Plymouth, there were not any apples yet."
Cooking Techniques of the 17th Century
While modern Thanksgiving meals involve a lot of planning and work, at least we have efficient ovens and kitchen utensils to make our lives easier. Curtin says the Pilgrims probably roasted and boiled their food. "Pieces of venison and whole wildfowl were placed on spits and roasted before glowing coals, while other cooking took place in the household hearth," she notes, and speculates that large brass pots for cooking corn, meat pottages (stews), or simple boiled vegetables were in constant use.
"The meaty carcasses from one meal no doubt were simmered to yield broth for use in the next. In the English tradition, the meats may have had sauces accompanying them — perhaps something as simple as mustard (a very popular English 'sauce'). And contrary to conventional wisdom, 17th-century English cuisine revealed through cookbooks of the time was anything but bland, making skillful use of a variety of ingredients including spices, herbs, dried fruits, and wine or beer."
Inspired to make more dishes from the first meal? Order Plimoth Plantation's Giving Thanks cookbook. To find out more about Plimoth Plantation or to attend one of its authentic themed dinners, visit www.plimoth.org.
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