A few years ago, Twitter put together a list of the most tweeted about food on Thanksgiving. It was stacked with the classics, like ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie.
If social media existed when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the first Turkey Day, the plates appearing on our news feeds would look radically different.
“Most of today’s classic Thanksgiving dishes weren’t served in 1621,” says Kathleen Curt, culinary historian from Plimoth Plantation. “These traditional holiday dishes became part of the menu after 1700. When you’re trying to figure out just what was served, you need to do some educated guesswork. Ironically, it’s far easier to discern what wasn’t on the menu during those three days of feasting than what was!”
From a handful of surviving documents, we know for certain that deer, waterfowl, and grains were present. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, addressed the menu in a letter back 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.”
The “fowling” mentioned by Winslow leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what game birds were harvested. Some early Plymouth writings mention eating bald eagle and cranes, but they haven’t been linked to this specific meal. Most historians agree that duck, goose, and swan were likely served, as well as the extinct passenger pigeon.
“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 Curt. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”
Wild turkey was available, but their presence at the first Thanksgiving isn’t a guarantee. Although William Bradford, the governor mentioned in Winslow’s letter, did write that the birds were plentiful that fall.
“And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.”
In addition to venison and waterfowl, it’s likely that seafood was a large part of the feast. Bass, eels, lobster, mussels, and clams were popular among the Pilgrims and surely found their way to the table. Winslow wrote about their favor for the Atlantic Ocean in his letter.
“Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels... at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs.”
Besides a wide selection of meat, the three-day celebration likely included hordes of wild fruits and cultivated vegetables. Plums, melons, grapes, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkins, squash, and nuts could have been gathered, and flint corn, carrots, turnips, spinach, cabbage, onions, beans, garlic, and leeks could have been grown.
For such an extravagant meal, you’d expect there to be some complimentary beverages on tap. However, historians are fairly confident all they had was water. There weren’t any apples to make cider, the grapes available produced poor wine, and the barley growing season for beer had just wrapped up.
“In their first year, the English colonists had grown a few acres of barley, so it is possible that some beer or ale may have been brewed by the end of harvest time—but given how long it takes to brew and ferment beer, this seems unlikely,” says Curt.
This likely changed how some of the food was prepared, as the English occasionally used beer and wine in their cooking. Based on 17th century cookbooks, though, the dishes still had plenty of flavor. Recipes from that time often use a variety of herbs, spices, and dried produce. There are even notable “stuffing” techniques, where herbs, nuts, and onions would be cooked inside of whole birds.
Stuffed birds would have been spit-roasted over coals, but other meats could have been smoked over open flames or braised inside brass pots. It’s speculated that bones and trimmings were often simmered to produce broth for the next meal.
Even though it’s hard to imagine our modern Thanksgiving featuring a vat of boiling animal pieces, the sentiment around the holiday remains the same. Wilson finished his letter with these thoughts: “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 far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”