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What was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving?

Believe it or not, green bean casserole hasn’t always been a Thanksgiving staple.


The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 -- ah, seems like just yesterday!

Nowadays, the Thanksgiving menu features wide array of items, with a handful of staples that you’ll find on most tables: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, some sort of casserole, corn and pumpkin pie.

But, back in 1621, it was a bit more limited. They definitely didn’t have any whipped cream for the pie. So what was on the menu back then? Here’s some background from the Smithsonian:

“Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there,” says Kathleen Wall. “These are absolutes.

Two primary sources—the only surviving documents that reference the meal—confirm that these staples were part of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, wrote home to a friend:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among 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 captain and others.”

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

Was the fowl turkey? Maybe

Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal, as it is today, explains Wall. Though it is possible the colonists and American Indians cooked wild turkey, she suspects that goose or duck was the wildfowl of choice.

In her research, she has found that swan and passenger pigeons would have been available as well. “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” says Wall. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200."

Pies and potatoes are missing

White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America.

Also, the colonists didn’t have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts.

“That is a blank in the table, for an English eye. So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat and more meat,” says Wall.

Read more from the Smithsonian here.


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