The feast, held in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, was very different from the Thanksgiving dinner that we enjoy today. It went on for three whole days, and the colonists and their Native guests probably didn’t sit at a table or use forks. Staples of modern Thanksgiving—like pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce—weren’t even served.
So what did they eat? While nobody knows the full menu, based upon various sources, it’s possible at least to make some educated guesses.
- Goose and duck. Edward Winslow, a colonial leader, wrote a 1621 letter in which he described how Gov. William Bradford had sent four men out to hunt for fowl for the feast. Though the letter doesn’t specify which birds, Nathaniel Philbrick, author of “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,” notes that migratory geese and ducks were plentiful in the area during the autumn, so it seems likely that they were among the foods served.
- Venison. We definitely know that this meat was served at the first Thanksgiving feast. The Native American guests at the feast—who actually outnumbered the Pilgrims—brought along with them five deer, according to Winslow.
- Fish. In the autumn, striped bass, bluefish and cod were abundant in local waters, according to Philbrick, and he thinks they may have been eaten that day.
- Turkey. In a 1621 letter, Bradford commented on the “great store of wild turkeys” that the colonists had hunted. So it seems possible, or even likely, that turkey was on the menu, even though Winslow didn’t specifically mention it in his description of the event. Turkey already was a popular gourmet food on the other side of the Atlantic, ever since Spanish conquerors returned in the early 1500s with birds that had been domesticated by the Aztecs.
- Lobster and mussels. In Winslow’s letter, he describes the local abundance of these aquatic animals as well, so it’s conceivable that they were on the menu.
- Stew. The colonists liked to make what they called pottages, in which various meats and vegetables were tossed in, according to Philbrick.
- Beer. The Pilgrims liked beer, which they brought with them on the Mayflower. The 1621 harvest had yielded a crop of barley, which for the first time made it possible for the colonists to make their own home brew, according to Philbrick.
- Cornbread. The colonists had just harvested their initial corn crop, so it would have been appropriate to include it on the menu. But it wasn’t the sweet yellow corn that we serve today as a side dish. Instead, they raised Indian corn, which was dried and pounded into meal for baking.
- Pumpkin. While the Pilgrims didn’t make pumpkin pies, it’s conceivable that they served stewed pumpkin or bread made from pumpkin and corn meal, both of which were eaten by colonists, according to Alice Morse Earle’s 1898 book “Home Life in Colonial Days.”
- Squash. This was another crop from the 1621 harvest, so it may have been served at the feast as well. The Native American style of preparation was to boil or roast it.