Hey there friends. I’m Yvonne Page Illustrates and this is Facts to Relax, the show where I research topics I find interesting and share what I learn with you. Today we’re answering the question “What did they eat at the first Thanksgiving?” If you want to color along with me while we find out the answer, the link to download and print this picture is in the description below or you can just go to yvonnepage.com/youtube. So now, let’s get started!
Thanksgiving in the United States is held every year on the fourth Thursday of November. It’s a day when we join together with family and friends for food, parades, football, and maybe a quick nap on the couch after it’s all done. Turkey is almost always at the center of the dinner with side dishes that remain pretty universal no matter where you eat- mashed potatoes, yams, squash, rolls, macaroni and cheese, greens, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and a dessert spread that almost always includes a pumpkin or sweet potato pie and probably an apple pie too. This menu is pretty standard Thanksgiving fare around the country and it made me wonder why. Is this the same meal that was served at the first Thanksgiving? It seems pretty unlikely…but if not, what did the Pilgrims and Indigenous Americans eat at that meal and how did we get from what they ate to the menu we have now?
Well, of course, I did some research and I’m here to share my findings with you.
First, let’s back it up and review when and what the first Thanksgiving actually was. The celebration took place in the autumn of 1621.Though we don’t know the exact dates, we do know that it took place over the course of three days, somewhere between late September and mid-November. Since the Pilgrims had landed in New England on November 11, 1620, this was approximately a year after their arrival and the celebration was meant to mark gratitude for their first harvest in this new land. Only about 50 of the 102 passengers from the Mayflower survived that first year and they did so with quite a bit of help from the Wampanoag tribe, who lived in the area. They taught the Pilgrims to grow corn, how to fish and hunt, and how to figure out which native plants were safe to forage.
As much as the meal was a celebration of the harvest and a full year of living in New England, it was also a show of political alliance and diplomacy between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe. The Pilgrims first officially met the Wampanoags about four months after their arrival and the two groups made a treaty that included promises not to harm members of the other group and to serve as allies in time of war so this extended dinner party would have helped strengthen this alliance between them. Along with food, the first Thanksgiving included hunting, fishing, games, and military exercises.
But back to what they ate.
There are a few records left that give us some insight into the first Thanksgiving and its menu. One Pilgrim, Edward Winslow wrote in a letter that they ate venison or deer, chestnuts, garlic, and artichoke. He also mentioned killing fowl which may have been turkey but could also have been geese, duck, swan, or even passenger pigeon. Side note- passenger pigeons have been extinct in the wild for over a century but would have been very plentiful in 1621 and quite easy to catch.
Luckily, there are people out there who have devoted a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what might have been eaten at that first Thanksgiving by studying cookbooks, descriptions of gardens from the period, and archaeological remains. Thanks to these historical artifacts, the researchers have been able to come up with some pretty solid guesses as to what foods were probably on the menu, and what foods probably weren’t.
Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, which is a living history museum in Plymouth Massachusetts where the Pilgrims settled, says bread made from maize or corn was probably part of the meal. And if they stuffed the birds, it was probably with chunks of onions and herbs instead of bread. A pottage, or stew made of broth and grain was probably served on the second and third days, made from the remains of the wildfowl eaten on the first day.
She also suspects there might have been some seafood on the menu such as lobster and codfish, unlike most modern Thanksgiving celebrations, because the Wampanoag people traditionally ate shellfish and eel, along with beans, corn, pumpkin, and squash. What we know was missing is pumpkin pie because, though the settlers would have had pie in England at the time, in their new home, there was no wheat flour or butter available to make the crust. Also, unlikely- mashed potatoes. At this point, neither white nor sweet potatoes were grown in North America. And though there may have been cranberries in their natural form, there was definitely not the gelatinous canned cranberry sauce we know and love today. In fact, the first recipe for traditional cranberry sauce-which involves boiling cranberries and mixing them with sugar wasn’t recorded for another fifty years-so there go a few of our really big players from the modern day Thanksgiving menu. Also, and this might be a bit of a disappointment to some, but guess what they probably drank…water. Simply water. Maybe a little beer or ale, but probably mostly water. Definitely no soda or the hard liquors that some of us depend so highly on to get through a day of heavy familial bonding now-a-days.
Sooooo, how did the menu go from wildfowl, pottage, and seafood to become what it is today?
Well, first of all, it wasn’t until 1863, 242 years after the first Thanksgiving, that it was officially declared a national holiday by then-president, Abraham Lincoln, as an attempt to unite the country during the Civil War. A united day of Thanksgiving had been suggested by George Washington in 1789 as a happy way to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War, new independence, and the successful ratification of the Constitution. However, no one was really on board then and the idea sort of fizzled off until the mid-1800s when a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale showed up on the scene.
Hale was a trendsetter and the editor of the women’s magazine “Godey’s Lady’s Book” and for some reason, she really loved the idea of Thanksgiving and she began pushing for the holiday about 17 years before Lincoln finally proclaimed it. She would print Thanksgiving recipes and menus in the magazine and in cookbooks and as the holiday began to pick up steam, so did her influence. Many of the things we eat at Thanksgiving today were from her recipes and suggestions. If you’re interested, I did find one of her cookbooks on Amazon and linked to that below in the description. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a free version, even though it should be, by all accounts, available somewhere in the public domain, so if anyone has a link to a free version of Sara Josepha Hale’s “Early American Cookery”, definitely please do all of us history nerds a favor and leave it in the comments.
Of course, the Thanksgiving menu has continued to evolve over time and individual favorites may vary by region, culture, and personal taste but somehow the holiday still manages to evoke an image of happy Pilgrims and American Indians sitting side-by-side sharing a celebratory meal together, even if the items on our tables are almost completely different from what they ate four-hundred years ago.
On that note, it’s time to wrap up this episode of Facts to Relax, like a plate of our favorite Turkey-day leftovers, and maybe take a quick nap before dessert. If you enjoyed this episode, please give it a thumbs up and if you want to learn more with me in the future, please subscribe and check back often so we can color and chill and learn together again soon. Bye!
❁❁ SOURCES & RESOURCES ❁❁
- Sarah Josepha Hale’s cookbook: https://amzn.to/33Zu5W8