The First Thanksgiving Was In The Autumn Of 1621.
Each year on the fourth Thursday in November, Americans gather for a day of feasting, football and family. While today’s Thanksgiving celebrations would likely be unrecognizable to attendees of the original 1621 harvest meal, it continues to be a day for Americans to come together around the table—albeit with some updates to pilgrim’s menu.
President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863, announced that Thanksgiving Day would come on the 4th Thursday of November every year and would be a federal holiday.
RELATIONS WITH NATIVE AMERICANS
The native inhabitants of the region around Plimouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. Soon after the Pilgrims built their settlement, they came into contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe (from present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island) who had been seized by the explorer John Smith’s men in 1614-15. Meant for slavery, he somehow managed to escape to England, and returned to his native land to find most of his tribe had died of plague. In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs (including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket), Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, which became an important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver.
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday. While no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, one of the governing leaders on the Mayflower, noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild—but not domestic—turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor. Wilson noted in his journal that the feast lasted three days with 90 Wampanoag and 53 settlers. The Wampanoag brought five deer for the feast. Although there is no surviving menu from this thanksgiving we know that most of the food was brought by the Wampanoag including various waterfowl, the deer, and corn. It’s likely that the feast was held outdoors as there was no house large enough to hold all these people.
Although migrating waterfowl and turkey were plentiful at this time of year, there’s no record that turkey was on the table. There probably were no cranberries, no sweet potatoes, and no pumpkin pie, although there was squash of some kind. One of the dishes they may have eaten was sobaheg, a Wampanoag stew of corn, roots, beans, squash and various meats, perhaps a precursor to succotash.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
The original succotash is a descendant of a local Native American meal based on a corn soup made with beans, unripe corn, and various meats, especially bear or fish. Over time it has evolved into a kind of boiled dinner with corned beef, chicken, salt pork, white Cape Cod turnips, potato, hulled corn and boiled beans with some salt pork. Originally, the beans used were actually dried peas, but over time lima beans have become popular.
The word succotash derives from Narragansett, a branch of the Algonquin language, the word being msiquatash. Native American Succotash The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, perhaps it's time to rediscover Indian pudding, a dish which, even in its native New England, has over the years become increasingly scarce. That's too bad, because an argument easily can be made that Indian pudding, not at all glamorous and in fact downright dowdy, was the first American comfort food. No wonder the early settlers are said to have eaten it three times a day. Like all comfort foods, Indian pudding is a simple concoction. Essentially it is nothing more than cornmeal boiled with milk, sweetened with molasses or maple syrup and cooked until thick. In other words, it's basically mush. Despite its name, Indian pudding didn't actually originate with the Native Americans, though it's a variation of similar Indian porridges called variously nasaump, rockahominy, supawn or sagamite.
Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes with the tart orbs. That’s because the sacks of sugar that traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were nearly or fully depleted by November 1621. Cooks didn’t begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until about 50 years later.
FISH AND SHELLFISH
Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today’s menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast.
THERE WAS NO PUMPKIN PIE AT THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England—possibly even during the harvest festival—but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking. According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes. The colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. Meat and more meat was served without potatoes, that is. White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America. 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.” Says Wall: “If there was beer, there were only a couple of gallons for 150 people for three days.” To wash it all down the English and Wampanoag drank water.
SOURCES: Smithsonian website, also, http://www.history.com/topics/pilgrims