The turkey is skinny and it seems to have more dark meat than white. There are no mashed potatoes, no candied yams, no cranberry sauce, and there isn’t a marshmallow in sight.
Looking around for your dessert prospects, you discover that there are no pies, no cakes, no cookies, not even a few brownie crumbs to sate your sweet tooth.
What type of Thanksgiving dinner is this, anyway?
It is the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. The guests included the 53 surviving English immigrants and about 90 members of the neighboring Pokanoket Tribe of the Wampanoag Nation. This three day feast included games, musket firing, and other forms of celebration.
The recent English immigrants had good cause to celebrate.
During the spring and summer, the tribe had taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn and other native plants in the rocky New England soil. The previous winter, half the Pilgrims who crossed the stormy Atlantic had died due to disease and poor provisions.
This year’s harvest was bountiful. Although they knew the winter would again be harsh, they faced it now with hope and faith.
History records only two first hand accounts of that first Thanksgiving. The first was written by Edward Winslow shortly after the event. The second was done by governor William Bradford years later. Neither gentleman took the time to write a detailed menu.
Winslow mentions a successful fowl hunt that took place after the harvest and mentions that Wampanoag people “went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”
Bradford concentrates on the food gathered during the summer, including great quantities of fish. He mentions waterfowl, wild turkey, venison, and Indian corn but never really gets around to giving any details about the feast they celebrated with the neighbors that fall.
Outside of venison, waterfowl, and possibly wild turkey, we can’t be certain what dishes were actually served during the first Thanksgiving. Roasted pumpkin, squash, cornmeal, grapes, dried berries, and shellfish are all quite probable, but nobody is really sure.
We are, however, positive that certain dishes did not make their way to the table in 1621.
There were no potatoes of any kind. Outside of a few botanists, white potatoes were virtually unknown to the English at this time. The few sweet potatoes that were imported into England in the early 1600′s were reserved for the ultra wealthy who prized them for their purported aphrodisiac properties.
In 1621, the term “wealthy Pilgrim” would have been an oxymoron.
There were certainly no apple pies or pumpkin pies at the feast. Wheat flour and butter were both in short supply in Plymouth that fall. Sugar was an incredibly expensive import during this time period. To seal the deal, the Pilgrims hadn’t yet built an oven.
Cranberries may have been used to add tartness to some dishes but cranberry sauce was an invention that arrived 50 years after the first Thanksgiving.
After a winter of starvation and disease, I suspect the Pilgrims were quite grateful for the bounty set before them and had no regrets about missing out on that after dinner slice of apple pie a la mode.
This Thanksgiving, as you gather together with family and friends, I hope you find it in your heart to feel the same spirit of thanks that was felt back at the original feast. It is better to be grateful for what we have than to grumble about we lack.
Here at Queenboro, we’d like to wish each of you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Thanks for visiting our blog. I hope you come back and visit us soon for another look “behind the seams.”