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The First Thanksgiving Meal

1621 Harvest Feast, Plimoth Plantation

In celebration of the 375th anniversary of the 1621 Harvest Feast, Plimoth Plantation presented a re-creation of the historic meal.

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sente four men out fowling that so we might, after a more special manner, rejoyce together after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. These four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help besides, served the company almost a week, at which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us.

And amongst 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 Captaine and others.

And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet, by the goodness of God, we are so farr from want that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

-Edward Winslow, Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1621

What was the original Thanksgiving meal really like? It is surprising to learn that although many of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes are associated with the Pilgrims, most of these foods were not actually present at the original Thanksgiving meal. In fact, the entire Thanksgiving feast has changed substantially as it has evolved into the holiday we now celebrate.

History tells us that the original celebration lasted three days. Although the actual dates of the festival were never recorded, most historians agree that the event took place in October rather than November.

The occasion was an outdoor event, celebrated during one of New England’s mild Indian summers. Sporting events such as shooting contests and other recreations were held between meals. The cooking was done on open spits and in outdoor ovens. Tables were made by placing long boards over sawhorses. Chairs consisted of stools and tree stumps. Eating utensils consisted primarily of pewter dishes, wooden bowls, knives, and spoons. (Forks were not commonly used in the 17th century.)

Because the feasting lasted for three days, a large number of ingredients went into the meal to add variety; they did not spend the last two days eating turkey leftovers! What they did and did not eat may come as a revelation.

Turkey and Other Fowl

Contrary to popular belief, turkey was probably not the main meat dish at the first Thanksgiving. Turkeys are not even mentioned in the feast records; however, prior to the celebration, Governor Bradford had sent out four men to go fowling. The records state that “these four, in one day, killed as much fowl as served the company almost a week.” We can assume that turkeys were among the birds killed, as they were very plentiful in the region. The Pilgrims had taken in a “great store of wild Turkies” during the summer. However, duck and goose must also be added to the list of original ingredients in the American Thanksgiving meal. Records show that these fowl were also plentiful.

Perhaps the largest single meat dish was venison, as Chief Massasoit and his braves brought five deer to the feast for their contribution to the meal. Other meats at the banqueting table included striped bass, cod, lobster, eel, clams, and other shellfish. With such a wide array of meat and seafood, 20th century cooks can choose from a large selection of main dishes and still serve what could be called, technically, a very “traditional” Thanksgiving meal!

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