Party Pointer: First Thanksgiving Food Facts

Check out these first Thanksgiving food facts to learn about what was really eaten. If Sarah Josepha Hale had not promoted the Plymouth harvest feast of 1621 as the first Thanksgiving, our current Thanksgiving food traditions would have little to do with what was actually eaten centuries ago.

In the early 1800’s, Sarah Josepha Hale was the editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was a real trendsetter for running a household. She was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln. She pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War, and, in 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Toda, although close to 90 percent of Americans eat turkey each year at Thanksgiving, turkey probably wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving, For the feast the settlers and Indians likely ate wild fowl, venison and seafood. Although writings from Plymouth Plantation Governor William Bradley describe wild turkeys roaming around, culinary historians believe they would have eaten duck or goose, or even swan or passenger pigeons.

Small birds were often spit-roasted, while larger birds were boiled. The Pilgrims stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs.  Since the first Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration, the remains of birds that are roasted one day were all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day. That broth was thickened with grain to make a pottage.

Turkeys for Thanksgiving came into the picture later, probably because they were cheaper and could feed more people than other types of poultry. The idea of serving turkey–like the idea of Thanksgiving itself–can be traced to Hale, who romanticized the bird in her 1827 novel Northwood. The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table.

In addition to wildfowl and deer, the colonists and Wampanoag Indians probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels. Bread, made from maize not wheat, was likely a part of the meal, but exactly how it was made is unknown.

Pumpkins were likely on the harvest feast menu served the way Native Americans ate them–baked and moistened with animal fat, maple syrup and honey. Filling a crust with meat, vegetables or fruit was a familiar concept to the English, but in the New World, they didn’t have access to butter or flour to make a pie. Pumpkin pie became a staple later when Amelia Simmons published a recipe in her 1796 cookbook.

Culinary historians don’t think potatoes would have been on the menu either. Although they were introduced at some point during the 1600s, potatoes didn’t become widely available until 1719 when introduced in New Hampshire by Scotch-Irish immigrants, Instead of potatoes, the settlers and Native Americans at Plymouth probably ate wild rice as their starch.

So, the foods you recognize as our traditional Thanksgiving menu weren’t actually eaten at the first harvest feast in 1621, but come from recipes promoted by Sarah Hale in her lady’s magazine as she strove to have Thanksgiving made an annual holiday. But regardless of when these foods were first eaten, they are dishes we have come to love and enjoy

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