What did the pilgrims eat on the first Thanksgiving? Did they have turkey – or venison? Do you think they ate pumpkin pie? Our great American Thanksgiving feasts are based on New England fall harvests: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, corn, cranberries and pumpkin pie – it’s tradition! But, is that what the pilgrims ate?
The colonists brought seeds from England which produced varieties of squash, pumpkin, wheat, barley, oats and peas. Women grew herbs and vegetables like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips in their gardens. Pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, and cows provided the colonists with meat, eggs, and dairy products. Spices, salt, sugar, oil and vinegar had to be imported from England once a year and rationed accordingly.
The colonists’ lives depended on a good harvest and they ate if crops were bountiful. By the third year in the new land, everything was producing well. Edward Winslow, one of the founders of the Plymouth colony, befriended the American native Wampanoag and won the friendship of their chief, Massasoit. Their neighbors taught them how to plant maize (multicolored Indian corn) and fish the streams for bass, perch, trout and catfish. They learned to harvest honey and find edible nuts and berries from the forests. The New England Ocean afforded fresh lobster, clams, cod and other shellfish.
In the fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford wrote, “all being well and recovered in health and strength, they had all things in good plenty.” After their first corn crop was successful, the governor decided a celebration was in order to thank God for His extravagant blessings. Their American Indian neighbors, the Wampanoag, were invited to join their surviving group of 53 for a time of feasting, a tradition the American natives already observed.
First Thanksgiving Feast
Chief Massasoit arrived at the feast with 90 American natives bearing gifts of five deer. Though the exact menu is not known, we do know they had fresh venison and possibly turkey and duck or geese. Winslow wrote in his journal that the governor sent four men on a “fowling” mission. “Besides waterfowl there were many wild turkeys, of which they took many,” he recorded. The men killed enough birds to feed the company for a week. Their banquet lasted from three to five days!
Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation says, “The feasters likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, carrots, and peas.”
Pumpkin Pie for Dessert?
There were no ovens for baking, and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621. The maple trees yielded a sweet syrup, which became their staple for sweetener as well as any honey that could be found. Their friends showed them how to fix a dish called “pompion”(stewed pumpkin). They sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds and strings, and filled the insides with milk and honey. The pumpkin was then put in the hot ashes to bake. They may not have eaten a real pumpkin pie, but they had the pumpkin pudding without the crust!
Winslow wrote in his journal, “And God be praised we had a good increase… that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about – rejoicing and eating together, and being able to thank God for it all?
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/11/091126-thanksgiving-facts-google-doodle.html; http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history http://www.history.com/topics/edward-winslow Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82; William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: S.E. Morison, ed. Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p 90