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.
Roast Goose with Chestnuts, Prunes and Armagnac
Mixed Greens with Dried Blueberries and Cranberries, Walnuts and Goat Cheese
Cornbread Dressing with Roasted Fall Vegetables
Cranberry, Shallot and Dried Cherry Compote
Cabbage Cole Slaw with Mustard Viniagrette
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.