It’s M-M-Monday: What Did They Eat in 1621?

Thanksgiving_smThe cooks among us work hard enough to put a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal on the table – just be glad they don’t have to go out, shoot and clean our Thanksgiving fare (unless they’re so inclined to do that).  So, what does history record for the first Thanksgiving dinner?  There are only two surviving documents which describe what was on the table in 1621.  Edward Winslow, present at the dinner, wrote a friend:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

Governor William Bradford added, “and besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

What else might the Pilgrims and their Indian friends, the Wampanoags, shared?  The Indians at the time likely ate all kinds of aquatic food like eels and shellfish (lobsters, clams mussels).  According to a culinarian interviewed by the Smithsonian, the Wampanoag people actually had a varied and healthy diet, consisting of walnuts, beechnuts, chestnuts, pumpkins, all kinds of squash, beans and corn.

Also, turkey wouldn’t have been the main dish, but rather goose or duck.  The culinarian also found in her research that there would have been abundant flocks of other birds, such as swans and passenger pigeons, so many that one could hear them a quarter mile before seeing them.  Her sources indicated that a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down up to two hundred.

The smaller birds might have been boiled and then perhaps roasted on a spit like the larger birds.  No bread stuffing for the birds, however, since bread or the means to make it would have been limited.  If the meat was stuffed with anything, it would have likely been onions and herbs.

Pumpkin pie?  No – it would have been more common at the time for the English to put the turkey in a pie.  While the Indians may have leaned more on nuts, vegetables and fish, the English were apparently more on the carnivore side. . . . meat, meat and more meat.

Cranberries?  Yes and no.  Yes, there were likely cranberries because that was a fruit the Indians ate right out of the bog apparently, but not in the way we prepare them today.  Sugar would have been a luxury item, so they perhaps were added to the meat dishes.  Records seem to indicate that perhaps several years later in 1663 people were speaking of a sauce made of cranberries and sweetened with sugar.

Potatoes?  Nope.  White potatoes made their way from South America later as did sweet potatoes from the Caribbean.

So maybe not the traditional fare we celebrate with today, but there was plenty of what they had available to feed both the Pilgrims and about ninety of their Indian friends for three days…. not sure if those were leftovers or what though.

The idea of setting aside a day of thanksgiving became a reality in the nineteenth century after Edward Winslow’s letter was printed in a pamphlet, followed by the re-discovery of Governor Bradford’s manuscript, Of Plimoth Plantation, a fascinating story if you want to read it here.

A woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady Book, was one of the proponents of the holiday.  Beginning in 1823 she petitioned thirteen presidents to consider setting aside a national day of thanksgiving.  Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, finally acquiesced in 1863.

Not to be outdone or left out of the planning of Thanksgiving fare, Hale began to include recipes in her magazine and published several cookbooks.  And those sources are where recipes for the Thanksgiving meals we eat today came from – roasted turkey with stuffing or sage dressing, mashed and sweet potatoes and more.

What are your Thanksgiving traditions, food or family activities?  Wishing everyone a sumptuous, love-filled, thankfulness-filled day of celebration on Thursday!

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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