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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!

The First Thanksgiving Meal, November 1996 Cape Cod LIFE | capecodlife.com

Visitors to Plimoth Plantation can see interpretations of 17th-century cooking throughout the year.

Old and New World Vegetables

Old and new world vegetables provided a delightful mixture to the first menu. These included beans, pumpkins, squash, turnips, parsnips, barley, onions, leeks, watercress and other “sallet herbes,” and roasted Indian corn (the colorful variety we now hang on our doors and lampposts in autumn). A small amount of peas may also have been included. Unfortunately, the pea crop had largely failed that year. Letters to England reveal that despite an abundant corn harvest, “the peas [were] not worth gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.”

White and Dark Breads

White and dark breads were served with butter during the feast. The white bread consisted of leftover ship biscuit (and butter) from the Mayflower. The dark bread was made of cornmeal, barley, and rye four. It was called “Rye and Injun” and was very nutritious. It soon became the common bread of the early colonists.

Wild Fruits

Wild fruits grew in abundance in the American wilderness. Among those fruits that graced the first Thanksgiving table were wild plums and dried wild blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. A popular misconception is that the Pilgrims also ate cranberries. Although neighboring bogs were full of them, there is no historical evidence that the Pilgrims ever learned to make use of the red fruits that would later become one of the area’s leading industries.

Desserts

Fruit served as the primary dessert fare on the original Thanksgiving menu. There is a good chance, however, that hasty pudding or Indian pudding made from cornmeal was also served. Pumpkin pie, that all-American favorite Thanksgiving dessert, had not yet been invented. In the early days, the Pilgrims stewed their pumpkin and served it as a sauce. Their only pies were English- style meat pies. References indicate that succulent eel pie was among the items served during the original feast.

With its early origins on the shores of the American wilderness, our Thanksgiving is certainly the oldest and most distinctively American holiday that we celebrate as a people. And though the specifics of the celebration have changed through the years, the spirit of Thanksgiving remains true. The spirit of thanks inspired our original settlers to break from their routine for three days of feasting and celebration to reflect on the blessings in their lives.



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