Thanksgiving Food 1621 vs 2016

By: Malena Esposito

When we think of our traditional modern-day Thanksgiving celebration, stuffed turkey and cranberry sauce tend to come to mind. How about a side of pumpkin pie and Black Friday deals for dessert? But what did the pilgrims and Native Americans eat almost 400 years ago? It’s doubtful that they bonded over sweet potato casserole and creamy macaroni and cheese.

Unlike our mid-day feast, the first Thanksgiving lasted three days. Fifty three remaining Mayflower passengers and ninety members of the Wampanoag Indian Tribe were in attendance. There were very few, if any, women or children. Due to compact housing arrangements, the feast was held outdoors at Plymouth Plantation, now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. The pilgrims came to America in efforts to escape religious persecution from England. The first Thanksgiving took place to thank God for their first plentiful harvest they had from the help of the Native Americans. Previous harvests had failed, causing the pilgrims to starve to death.

Although there are few written documents remaining from 1621, there were several paintings, oral stories, and archaeological evidence to help culinary historians better understand what they ate at the First Thanksgiving. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, journaled the feast, stated that “there was a great store of wild turkeys”, and “they killed five deer”, as well as enough geese and duck to feed them for a week. The pilgrims and Native Americans grew plenty of nuts and berries, such as acorns, chestnuts, walnuts, raspberries and strawberries. They also harvested vegetables, including squash, onions, carrots, and artichokes. The bays and rivers provided them with eel, lobster, clam, and mussels. The pilgrims learned many harvesting and fishing techniques from the help of the Wampanoag Tribe.

Despite the fact that the settlers and Indians ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving, it didn’t become the holiday staple food until years later, around the time that President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday in 1863. The turkey that they ate in 1621 was wild turkey, as opposed to our current domestic turkey, which weighs more. In the 395 years since the first Thanksgiving, our menu has grown from squash and mussels to cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving is a cherished tradition that has brought families together for generations.