Earlier this year, my friend and I decided to put together a supper-club Thanksgiving. We wanted to make it “authentic”—something closer to what was eaten the first time the thanks were given than to the post-atomic age Rockwellian feast we all think of these days.
We started with the Internet, which led us to books, which led us to historical societies. So just how inaccurate is today’s archetypal Thanksgiving menu? First, let’s set the scene:
The modern Thanksgiving holiday is based off of a festival shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1621. The feast celebrated the colonists’ first successful harvest in the New World. While modern Thanksgiving always lands on the last Thursday of November, we found the original likely went down sometime earlier in autumn.
(I’ll note that Thanksgiving was originally a one-off. Though previous presidents called for a celebration of the holiday, Abraham Lincoln was the first to establish Thanksgiving as an annual holiday with a fixed date in 1863, when a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale convinced him that a nationally celebrated Thanksgiving holiday would unite the country in the midst of the Civil War. From then on, Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, typically on the last Thursday in November, but the date wasn’t made official until decreed by Congress in 1941.)
There are only two surviving documents that reference the original Thanksgiving harvest meal. The first was written by a man named Edward Winslow, who described a celebration of the colonists and some ninety natives, among them their chief, Massasoit. The Wampanoag brought along five freshly killed deer as a gift for the governor, and four colonists “killed as much fowle as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a weeke.” Everyone feasted upon this glut of venison and poultry for three days.
The second reference to the first Thanksgiving was by the aforementioned governor, William Bradford (he of the venison gift). In it, he describes a feast featuring a smorgasbord of cod and bass, all brought to the table with wild poultry. Bradford is also the first to mention the presence of flint, a tri-colored corn grown by the Native Americans, which was most likely eaten as cornbread or porridge.
These two sources contain all we know firsthand. The rest of the menu we can only piece together, based upon what was available, what both groups ate in times of celebration, and what the Native Americans would have (literally) brought to the table...
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