The first colonists often celebrated days of thanksgiving as it was a big part of their religious beliefs. Thanksgiving days for the early colonists were quiet days of prayer - not feasts as we think of them today. However, in 1621 the pilgrims had their first big harvest and the reason why this harvest was successful was in part due to the support they received from the local Wampanoag Indians.
To celebrate the first large harvest as well as the cooperation and interaction between the English colonists and the Native Americans, a feast was held in Plymouth in the fall of 1621 - this is by many to be considered the first Thanksgiving. Since Plymouth is just a few miles from where I live, this time of year brings added meaning as we think about this historical event that took place hundreds of years ago right out our back door.
The legacy of thanks, and particularly of the feast, have survived the centuries as people throughout the United States gather with family, friends, and enormous amounts of food for their yearly Thanksgiving meal.
So, what foods were on the table during that first historical meal? Although we can't be certain as to exactly what they ate, we do know that this meal did not have mashed potatoes since potatoes were not available to the colonists during that time. Based on historical writings we can be certain that venison and wild fowl, probably wild turkey since it's so common to this area, was most definitely on the menu.
Although our modern Thanksgiving menu includes lots of vegetables, the colonists' menu was centered around many different meats since vegetables did not traditionally play a large part of any meal. Back then colonists needed lots of protein since they were more active and needed to survive long cold winters.
It's also interesting to note that pilgrims did not use forks to eat since they had yet to be invented. Instead they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. Salt also would have been at the table, but pepper would not have been.
Above - Traditional Wampanoag Indian place setting included a spoon, turtle shell, and knife.
Above - Traditional Colonial English Setting Table from early 1600's
Here's a list of foods that were probably on the menu. This list has been obtained from Plimoth Plantation.
Surprisingly, the following foods, all considered staples of the modern Thanksgiving meal, didn't appear on the pilgrims' first feast table:
Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England. Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common. Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year. Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time. Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin. Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it's unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying. Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it's possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.
So, as you prepare for your Thanksgiving meal think about what the early colonist may have eaten and how different things are today. But one thing that has not changed throughout the years is our gratitude for the blessings we have received and for the family and friends that are so close to our hearts.
Written by Jackie at
Ellie Mae's Cottage