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The First Thanksgiving: What Was Really On the Table?

Not Pumpkin Pie.

We’ve all seen re-enactments of the ‘first’ Thanksgiving. Many of us have even participated in them as school children, dressed in paper feather headdresses or Pilgrim’s black & white. But what foods did those hardy souls at Plymouth Colony really share back around the autumn of 1621?

While there are a very limited number of documented facts to sort through, educated conjecture allows us to consider what those early settlers and Native Americans might have had on their table.

According to the accounts of Edward Winslow and William Bradford, the colonists provided harvested crops and sent men out to hunt for fowl (turkey?). The Indians chipped in with a kill of five deer. Winslow also mentions corn and Indian corn. Bradford lists bass, cod, and other fish—and yes, wild turkeys (the birds, not the booze).

From other records that survive from Plymouth, we know that other possible foods that may have been part of the Thanksgiving bounty include lobster (really?), rabbit, chicken, squash, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey, radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and possibly goat cheese. They undoubtedly had breads and dried fruits also.

Most likely the main course was venison roasted on a spit; turkey—roasted or boiled; and boiled fish.

No potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumkin pie

No potatoes, though. They had not yet made their way across the ocean. Pumpkin pudding or stew could have been part of the spread, but not in a crust, so no pumpkin pie. Cranberries, yes, but not cranberry sauce, as the pilgrims had no sugar. Just honey and maple syrup. So no whipped cream, either.

There apparently was no mention of gravy.

Okay, so they ate a little differently back on that ‘first’ Thanksgiving than we do now every fourth Thursday of November, but it sounds like they had quite a bountiful buffet none the less. Plus, we’re guessing they had very few artificial flavors or colors, and it’s unlikely anyone used the word “microwavable” or requested a vegetarian ‘Tofurky.’

And rumors that the Pilgrims and Indians played a game of touch football after the feast are probably unfounded. They would have been too sleepy from the tryptophan.