Unfortunately, there is no actual menu for the first Thanksgiving in 1621. There is some debate, however, whether or not turkey was on the table. There is even one story where the original intent was to hunt for turkey, and all the Pilgrims wound up bagging was a bunch of crows instead. We would guess that those were a wise bunch of birds.
So let’s assume that turkey became a holiday symbol later on, and look at some of the other foods that may well have been served at that first Thanksgiving. Keep some napkins handy, because you are about to start drooling something fierce.
It is well known that Squanto took pity on the Pilgrims, and helped teach them how to live off of the land and water. One of the hunting methods that Squanto taught them was to spear eels, who were curled up in muddy areas during colder weather. As a matter of fact, the feast made when the Pilgrims made peace with the leader of the Massosoit tribe was a feast of eels. The hunting of eels is also backed up by Pilgrim accounts. So yes, instead of cranberries, the first Thanksgiving would have probably featured a second helping of eel. Just like Grandma used to make.
9. Dried Fruit
Fruit was considered to be more of a snack by the Pilgrims. However, there was not refrigeration to store fruits. The solution, particularly when out of season or when you did not have a budget to ship them in from Spain, was to dry the fruits and eat them later. Drying could be done either outside or in shelters, to keep away flies. In addition to sun-drying fruit, there was also the option of oven-drying fruits in cooler climates. Dried fruit, such as raisins, would have been a treat or dessert to eat at the first Thanksgiving table. Also, you might have wanted to store a few in your pocket for later.
While lobster is more of a delicacy today, the Pilgrims would have seen the crustacean as a staple of their diet. The Patuxet Squanto was again instrumental in teaching the Pilgrims to catch and cook lobsters. The Pilgrim Edward Winslow even sent a letter back to England in 1622 detailing the feast (which is reported to have lasted up to five days) and lobster was really put over as a major dish. This letter electrified the imagination of all who read it, and started to turn the Harvest Feast into Thanksgiving. So it might be a great idea to spend a Thanksgiving rolling out that very traditional Lobster Feast. Just don’t forget to remove the rubber bands afterwards. They’re chewy.
To be fair, “Hardtack” was also a name applied to these biscuits served primarily during the Civil War. They were often derided, and would frequently be infested with bugs. Hardtack existed during the Pilgrims’ era too, would often be eaten in darker places (so they didn’t have to see the bugs) and dipped into liquids. The dipping had a dual purpose. First, it would lighten the biscuits’ rock hard jaw-breaking consistency. Plus, it killed the maggots, a recommended step for any good dish, really.
Hardtack is rather easy to make, as well as plentiful. if you’re sick of warm, soft, buttery rolls at your Thanksgiving, consider these glorified stones for all your future meals. Just keep an eye out for any wriggling maggots that somehow survived the Dipping Holocaust.
When the pilgrims and the Wampanoag broke hardtack together, they would have enjoyed a helping of samp on the side. Samp, a derivative of a primarily-English porridge, is a mixture of corn and milk mixed into a rather soupy consistency. In the 1600’s book Two Voyages to New England, John Josselyn states that the Samp would be boiled by the gallon after the corn was ground into a flour and stirred in a combination of milk and water. Samp could have either been a side dish or a full meal, depending on the situation. Photo and Samp recipe.
Because it grew better than English grains, Pilgrims referred to Maize as “Indian Corn.” The corn was planted in the spring, with the Wampanoag using small herring fish as fertilizer for its growth. The corn would have been dried out by November, meaning the Pilgrims would not have eaten corn-on-the-cob at Thanksgiving. The corn would have been shucked, as well as ground. This would have been primarily done to make into a meal, or to cook into bread. Either way, maize would have been a staple of Pilgrim diets at the time of the first feast.
The classic image of Pilgrims making pumpkin pie for the first Thanksgiving is not quite accurate. The Pilgrims would likely have dug out the contents of the pumpkin, and refilled it with eggs and other items. The pumpkin would then have been cooked to a blackened outside shell. In this way, the pumpkin would have served as an edible pot, with the contents being scooped out and served. So pumpkins were likely a big part of the first Thanksgiving feast, though they were not specifically mentioned until the account of the second Thanksgiving feast.
3. Wild Fowl
Far moreso than turkey, it was quite likely that ducks or geese were served at the first Thanksgiving. The simple fact is that ducks and geese were more plentiful in autumn to hunt than turkeys were. There is also the great possibility that Passenger Pigeons, which have been extinct for over a century, would have been plentiful at the time. Swan may have also been on the menu.
One reason to use these birds over turkey is the issue of preparation. Smaller fowl can be spit roasted, which would make them easier to cook for a large crowd. Back then, turkey would have to be boiled prior to stuffing, which was a much bigger pain back in the day. It would have simply been easier to feed a crowd with birds other than turkey.
Fish, specifically Atlantic White Cod, would have been a staple of most any meal done by the Pilgrims. Cod was plentiful, as well as desired for its lean white meat. The Pilgrims were quite intent on fishing, except they were terrible at it. Squanto and others taught the Pilgrims not only to fish, but also to use the rest of the fish as fertilizers for crops and oils.
Of course, cod would not be the only seafood on the menu. There would have also been quahogs (clams,) which were steamed. Bass and oysters would have been plentiful as well. In short, the bulk of the first Thanksgiving would have most likely been a seafood feast.
1. Deer (Venison)
While we’re doubtful about turkey being on the first Thanksgiving menu, there is no question about deer meat being on the table. According to Edward Winslow, author of the only known account of the event, the Wampanoag killed five deer for the feast. Winslow was extremely specific about the deer portion of the meal, and only vaguely referred to the bird meat as “fowl,” so you can guess which dish was his favorite that day. What can we say; some people are simply partial to red meat.
So if someone kills Bambi this Thanksgiving, they’re not heartless murderers of all thing innocent and childlike; they’re simply following a proud tradition dating back to 1621. Not to worry though; if you’re squeamish about killing your own deer, there are plenty of exotic meat markets out there willing to charge you ridiculous amounts of money for the right to enjoy the ultimate hipster holiday treat.