The history of the holiday enjoy the meal tells us that turkey was always the centerpiece, however other process have due to the fact that disappeared


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traditional Thanksgiving dinner contains turkey, stuffing and also mashed potatoes yet the very first Thanksgiving likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and also venison. Bettmann / Corbis

Today, the classic Thanksgiving dinner includes any variety of dishes: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. However if one to be to create a historically exact feast, consist of of just those foods that chroniclers are certain were served at the so-called “first Thanksgiving,” there would certainly be slimmer pickings. “Wildfowl to be there. Corn, in grain form for bread or because that porridge, to be there. Venison was there,” says Kathleen Wall. “These are absolutes.”

Two major sources—the just surviving files that reference the meal—confirm that these staples were component of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag in ~ Plymouth swarm in 1621. Edward Winslow, one English leader that attended, wrote house to a friend:

“Our harvest being acquired in, our branch sent 4 men on fowling, that so we might after a distinct manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of ours labors. They 4 in one day killed as much fowl as, with a small help beside, offered the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we worked out our arms, numerous of the indians coming among us, and amongst the remainder their greatest king Massasoit, through some ninety men, who for 3 days we entertained and feasted, and also they went out and killed 5 deer, which they lugged to the plantation and bestowed on ours governor, and upon the captain and also others.”

William Bradford, the branch Winslow mentions, also described the loss of 1621, adding, “And besides waterfowl there was good store that wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, lock had around a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

But identify what rather the colonists and Wampanoag might have eaten at the 17th-century feast takes some digging. To form educated guesses, Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, researches cookbooks and descriptions of gardens native the period, historical remains such together pollen samples that might clue her in come what the colonists were growing.

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Our discussion begins with the bird. Turkey was no the centerpiece the the meal, as it is today, explains Wall. Despite it is possible the colonists and also American ind cooked wild turkey, she suspects that goose or duck to be the wildfowl the choice. In she research, she has uncovered that swan and also passenger pigeons would have actually been easily accessible as well. “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they stated you could hear them a quarter-hour prior to you witnessed them,” claims Wall. “They to speak a man could shoot in ~ the bird in flight and bring down 200.”

Small bird were often spit-roasted, while larger birds to be boiled. “I also think some birds—in a many recipes you see this—were boiled first, then roasted to complete them off. Or things room roasted first and climate boiled,” says Wall. “The beforehand roasting offers them nicer flavor, kind of caramelizes castle on the outside and makes the broth darker.”

It is feasible that the birds to be stuffed, though more than likely not v bread. (Bread, do from maize not wheat, was likely a component of the meal, however exactly exactly how it to be made is unknown.) The Pilgrims rather stuffed birds with chunks that onion and herbs. “There is a exorbitant stuffing because that goose in the 17th-century that is simply shelled chestnuts,” states Wall. “I am reasoning of that appropriate now, and also it is sounding an extremely nice.” because the an initial Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration, she adds, “I have no doubt whatsoever the birds that are roasted one day, the continues to be of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled approximately make broth the following day. The broth thickened v grain to do a pottage.”

In enhancement to wildfowl and also deer, the colonists and Wampanoag most likely ate eels and also shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels. “They were drying shellfish and smoking various other sorts the fish,” states Wall.

According come the culinarian, the Wampanoag, like most eastern woodlands people, had actually a “varied and also extremely good diet.” The forest detailed chestnuts, walnuts and also beechnuts. “They grew flint corn (multicolored Indian corn), and also that was your staple. They prospered beans, i beg your pardon they supplied from when they were small and green until as soon as they to be mature,” claims Wall. “They likewise had various sorts that pumpkins or squashes.”

As we space taught in school, the Indians proved the colonists how come plant native crops. “The English colonists plant gardens in march of 1620 and also 1621,” states Wall. “We nothing know exactly what’s in those gardens. Yet in later on sources, castle talk around turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkins together the species of things that they were growing.”

Of course, to part extent, the practice of reimagining the spread out of food in ~ the 1621 celebration i do not care a process of elimination. “You look at what one English celebration in England is in ~ this time. What room the points on the table? friend see several pies in the first course and also in the 2nd course, meat and also fish pies. To cook a turkey in a pie was no terribly uncommon,” says Wall. “But it is like, no, the pastry no there.” The colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. (That’s right: No pumpkin pie!) “That is a empty in the table, because that an English eye. So what room they putting on instead? ns think meat, meat and much more meat,” claims Wall.

Meat there is no potatoes, that is. White potatoes, originating in south America, and also sweet potatoes, native the Caribbean, had yet come infiltrate phibìc America. Also, over there would have actually been no cranberry sauce. It would certainly be one more 50 years prior to an brother wrote around boiling cranberries and also sugar into a “Sauce to eat with. . . .Meat.” claims Wall: “If there was beer, over there were just a couple of gallons because that 150 civilization for three days.” She thinks the to wash it all down the English and also Wampanoag drank water.

All this, naturally, begs a follow-up question. So exactly how did the Thanksgiving food selection evolve right into what it is today?

Wall defines that the Thanksgiving holiday, together we recognize it, take it root in the mid-19th century. In ~ this time, Edward Winslow’s letter, printed in a pamphlet dubbed Mourt’s Relation, and also Governor Bradford’s manuscript, title Of Plimoth Plantation, to be rediscovered and also published. Boston priest Alexander Young published Winslow’s letter in his Chronicles the the Pilgrim Fathers, and also in the footnotes to the resurrected letter, he somewhat arbitrarily declared the feast the an initial Thanksgiving. (Wall and others in ~ Plimoth Plantation like to speak to it “the harvest celebration event in 1621.”) There to be nostalgia for colonial times, and by the 1850s, most states and territories were celebrating Thanksgiving.

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Sarah Josepha Hale, editor that the renowned women’s newspaper Godey’s Lady’s Book, , a genuine trendsetter for to run a household, to be a top voice in developing Thanksgiving together an annual event. Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln. She pitched she idea to president Lincoln together a method to hold together the country in the middle of the polite War, and, in 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Throughout her campaign, Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey’s Lady’s Book. She additionally published close come a dozen cookbooks. “She is really planting this idea in the top of lots of women the this is miscellaneous they should want come do,” states Wall. “So once there lastly is a national day the Thanksgiving, there is a whole body of women that are all set for it, who understand what come do since she said them. A lot of the food that we think of—roast turkey through sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, also some that the mashed potato dishes, i m sorry were type of exotic then—are there.”