First Thanksgiving

What is known as “The First Thanksgiving”, the three day harvest celebration of the English Colonists of Plymouth known as the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indian Tribe was probably very different from a traditional Thanksgiving dinner today.

There is no official record of what was served, but there is plenty of information on what was not available, and it was a lot. Turkey may have been served, but it was more likely duck or goose. Potatoes had not made it into the Indian diet yet and the English still thought they were poisonous. Sweet potatoes were still a rare delicacy in England, and thought to be a potent aphrodisiac, so not really in  line with the whole Puritan ethos. Apple’s are not native to North America and were not imported until the end of the 17th Century. (“As American as Apple Pie”, pretty much means, “As American as any English Import”) Sugar and Flour would have come from the supplies the Pilgrim’s brought with them, which would have been almost completely depleted by this time. So no pie of any kind. No cows or goats or other dairy animals. So no milk, whipped cream, butter or cheese.

I know what you are thinking… you will have an absolute mutiny on your hands if you eliminate all of these time-honored favorites in pursuit of absolute authenticity. Don’t Panic! The Historic Hostess is here to help you throw fun parties with delicious food and fascinating historical backstories, not to torture your family and friends by forcing them to politely endure the culinary constraints of a society who were celebrating that half of their original party were still alive, and that they had anything to eat at all.

So we have created a menu that is inspired by this first feast, incorporating the ingredients they were known to have had, avoiding things we know they didn’t have, but cheating here and there when the taste compromise would be too great. We make an effort to note where we stray from reality, so you can make more severely accurate choices if you like.

Cocktail

Pilgrim Pumpkin Punch

Appetizer
Venison Stuffed Mushroom Caps
Wampanoag Sobaheg (Stew)

Main Dish
Roast Goose with Chestnuts, Prunes and Armagnac
Turkey

Side Dishes
Mixed Greens with Dried Blueberries and Cranberries, Walnuts and Goat Cheese
Cornbread Dressing with Roasted Fall Vegetables
Cranberry, Shallot and Dried Cherry Compote
Mushy Peas
Cabbage Cole Slaw with Mustard Viniagrette

Dessert
Pumpkin Pudding
Maple Walnut Pie

While this 1621 feast is the event commemorated in our modern Thanksgiving celebrations, it was not what would have been considered “a day of thanksgiving” in 17th Century culture. In those days, a day of thanksgiving was a day of religious devotion spent in prayer and fasting. It was pretty much the opposite of the secular celebration of overeating and football that it is today. The Pilgrim/Wampanoag party, however was a celebration of the harvest. This was a common practice both in English society and among the Native Americans. Edward Winslow’s account (the only primary account of the event) lets us know that this was no dour day of supplication, but a long weekend of eating and merry-making.

“…at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted,”

The Puritans were not big on recreation in general, and did not really keep records of what they did for fun, as fun was frowned upon. But we do have knowledge of popular entertainments of the era, and some of which are still played today, other more unfamiliar games would be a lot of fun to recreate.

The Pilgrims did not make an annual event of this first Thanksgiving Day in the New World. In fact, while various states celebrated a day of feasting in thanksgiving in the early days of the republic, the date was not fixed nationally until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation in an effort to unify the fractured country in the midst of the Civil War. And FDR finally made it a national holiday by federal legislation in 1941, and moved the date from the final Thursday in November, to the fourth (not always final) Thursday in November.

The exploitation of this one shining positive example of Colonial and Native relations in the New World as though it was the start of a long and cooperative relationship is certainly a valid criticism of this holiday and how we look at it in this country.  But I think it is important to look at an example of when we feel like we are at our best and hold that example up and try to emulate it. If the 1621 Harvest Festival Feast shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians is the best example we have of accepting help from more experienced people, and then graciously thanking them for it by sharing the bounty of that assistance, then that is what we are celebrating, teaching and trying to replicate. We have failed at it many times in the last 400 years, but that doesn’t mean we stop being thankful that it happened once, and try to make it happen again.

The Historic Hostess is thankful for our readers, for helping us to celebrate the best our varied cultures have to offer and to learn from the mistakes we have made as a society throughout history one meal at a time.

We are thankful for our families and friends who have helped us cook, photograph, research and most importantly, shared these meals with us.

We are thankful to have the means to make this food, to learn about it, to write about it and to have an audience to read about it.

And this year we are especially thankful for the healthy birth of Baby Mara Moran Coffey, the newest Historic Hostess. We are looking forward to many celebrations in her honor.

Pilgrim Pumpkin Punch

This is not the least bit realistic. Fun, party cocktails is not at all an idea these people would have been familiar with. However, that is not to say they did not drink alcohol. A frequent shipboard ration of beer was a mind blowing gallon per person per day (man, woman or child). But they would have been low on supplies at this time, and though they grew barley, the fermenting process is so time consuming they probably did not yet have any ready by the time this celebration took place. Water was probably the beverage on offer.

But just because they were abstaining out of necessity, doesn’t mean we have to. This is the perfect use for any left over pumpkin and whipped cream you have laying around.

Mix pumpkin puree and heavy cream until you get a drinkable consistency. Then add whisky or bourbon to taste. Add a dollop of real whipped cream on top of individual drinks and top with nutmeg.

Venison Stuffed Mushroom Caps

This recipe came from greatvenisoncooking.com

One of the few things that is actually known about the 1621 feast is that the Wampanoag brought five deer to share with the Pilgrims. Talk about good guests at a potluck. No Two Buck Chuck and store bought dinner rolls for these guys. Whether they knew it or not, this was a really smart diplomatic offering on the part of the Indians. In England, venison was only available to be hunted on the land of the gentry. It is was actually illegal to buy or sell it. Only the very rich had access to it, and it was a definite mark of class.

Mushrooms also grew wild around Plymouth Colony, and the Wampanoag showed the Pilgrims which ones were edible and which ones would kill you. Considering that only 53 of the original 102 emigrants were still living by the first Thanksgiving, any advice that aided in staying alive was pretty valuable.

Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer weren’t really something you would have seen until the 20th Century, but they would have made wide use of both the main ingredients.

1/2 pound ground venison

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon allspice, ground

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon dried parsley

salt & pepper (be generous with both of these)

2 packages white mushrooms

Preheat the oven to 375 Degrees Fahrenheit. Mix the venison, oil and spices in a bowl. Set aside. Wash the mushrooms, and pat dry with a towel. Remove the mushroom stems, place mushroom caps in a baking dish and spoon the meat mixture into the caps. Put enough meat in each cap so that the meat peeks over the top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the meat is cooked through. Serve immediately.

Wampanoag Sobaheg

Sobaheg is the Wampanoag word for Stew. This is another dish that was very likely actually served at the first Thanksgiving. The recipe here is loosely adapted from Plymouth Farmer’s MarketNative American Cookbook and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. This is one of those fabulous recipes that can vary tremendously in ingredients and quantity depending on what you have on hand. We made a vegetarian version in deference to the non-meat eating guests at our Thanksgiving and served it as appetizer in small bowls (this is a filling dish so serve sparingly), but this recipe is also a great way to use leftover turkey if you are going fully authentic with a three day eating extravaganza. It’s also another place to through in some of the venison from the five deer your guests are going to bring.

1 cup of grits

2 cups of soaked beans, 1 or 2 cans of beans, or a pound turkey meat (legs or breast, with bone and skin)
 or a pound of venison

water

1 cup trimmed green beans or 1 cup peeled and cubed Jerusalem artichokes (optional)

1 medium pumpkin or about 1 pound of squash cleaned and cubed

½ cup raw sunflower seeds (or walnuts or chesnuts), crushed into powder

½ cup maple syrup or honey (optional)

1½ tablespoons of salt

Add all of these ingredients to a crockpot, then fill the pot with water until about an inch from the top. Turn the crock pot on low and leave it alone for about 8 hours. (Like if you are making with turkey leftovers, through it all together before you go to bead and wake up to the aroma of Turkey Stew for Breakfast! Hangover Cured!)

Turkey

Wild Turkey was very common in New England in those days, so while it is probably Duck or Goose that was the featured bird referenced in Edward Winslow’s account, it is hard to believe a three day feast for 150 people wouldn’t have included a turkey or two.

My brother John, the resident Turkey expert in my family handled the bird, so I will have to rely on him for an account of how to do it.

Roast Goose with Chesnuts, Prunes and Armagnac

This recipe comes from Bon Appétit, December 1991

While it is fitting that the Wild Turkey, native to North America has become the symbol of Thanksgiving, it is most likely that the Pilgrims feasted on Goose or Duck on the day. In the only references to the meal in question, Edward Winslow mentions, “They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week”. This reference to fowl could include turkey, but most historians tend think he means waterfowl. Goose had a long tradition in Europe of signifying the changing of the seasons, as they are a migratory bird. Sacrificing a goose in thanksgiving for a good harvest has roots in the Celtic Samhain, the Germanic Yule, or the celebration of the winter solstice. While the Pilgrims would certainly eschew such pagan rituals, the holiday goose had become such a part of English/Christian culture they would probably have participated in the rites without a second thought.

1 16-ounce package pitted prunes
3 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
1 3/4 cups dry red wine
1 1/4 cups prune juice

1 12- to 13-pound goose
1 orange, quartered (Not likely they had any citrus)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon ground pepper
1 large onion, cut into 8 pieces
4 bay leaves

6 tablespoons Armagnac, Cognac or other brandy
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature (supplies would have been low)
1 tablespoon all purpose flour (probably didn’t have this)
1 7 2/5-ounce jar steamed or roasted chestnuts
Chopped fresh parsley

Combine prunes, stock, 1 1/2 cups wine and 1 cup prune juice in heavy medium saucepan. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove mixture from heat. Transfer 12 prunes to small bowl, using slotted spoon.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Pat goose dry. Pull out fat from cavity. Rub inside and out with cut side of orange. Combine salt and pepper and rub inside and outside goose. Place orange, onion, bay leaves and 12 drained prunes in goose cavity. Tie legs together. Place goose on rack in roasting pan. Pierce all over with small metal skewer or toothpick.
Roast goose 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350°F and roast 30 minutes longer. Remove fat from roasting pan. Combine remaining 1/4 cup wine and 1/4 cup prune juice and brush some over goose. Continue roasting goose until juices run clear when pierced in thickest part of thigh, basting goose with wine mixture and removing fat from pan occasionally, about 2 hours.
Transfer goose to platter and tent with foil. Let stand 20 minutes.
Strain prune poaching liquid, reserving prunes. Degrease roasting juices. Add 1/2 cup poaching liquid to roasting pan and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer to heavy medium saucepan. Add Armagnac, remaining poaching liquid and degreased roasting juices. Boil until flavors are intense, about 15 minutes. Knead butter and flour together. Whisk into sauce in small bits and simmer until thick, about 8 minutes. Add poached prunes and chestnuts and heat through. Sprinkle with parsley.
Carve goose into thin slices. Spoon sauce, chestnuts and prunes over.

Cranberry, Blueberry, Shallot and Dried Cherry Compote

Cranberry sauce was probably not served at this event. The first mention of that type of use of the cranberry (then called by it’s Indian name, sasemineash) didn’t show up for about 50 more years. So in addition to not having thought of making a sweet sauce out of the tart berries, they probably did not have the surplus of sugar needed.

However, it was common practice in English cooking of the time to use tart berries in sauces and broths to accompany meat. So this recipe, while it employs native plants like cranberries, blueberries, cherries and shallots, is not an authentic recipe from the era. But it is tasty and the leftovers were delicious mixed with oatmeal.

1/2 pound small (1-inch-wide) shallots or pearl onions (preferably red), left unpeeled

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or vegetable oil

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup white-wine vinegar

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup dried sour cherries (5 ounces)

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (8 ounces; not thawed if frozen)

1 cup frozen blueberries

1/2 cup water

Blanch shallots in a 3-quart saucepan of boiling water 1 minute, then drain. Peel shallots and separate into cloves if necessary.

Cook shallots in butter in 3-quart saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, 1 minute. Add sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar and cook, stirring frequently, until sugar mixture turns a golden caramel, 15 to 20 minutes. Carefully add remaining vinegar, wine, and salt and boil, stirring, 1 minute (use caution, as mixture will bubble up). Add cherries and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until shallots are tender and liquid is syrupy, about 45 minutes.

Add cranberries and water and gently boil over moderate heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until cranberries have burst, about 10 minutes. Transfer compote to a bowl and cool completely.