At the First Thanksgiving
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For most Americans, a traditional Thanksgiving meal includes a turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and pumpkin pie (or sweet potato pie if you are a Southerner).
While there are many regional and ethnic variations, this basic Thanksgiving menu has not changed much in the last 200 years, and the standard bill of fare isn’t much older than that. Our modern feast bears little resemblance to the 1621 celebration popularly known as the First Thanksgiving, even as the many traditional qualities of today’s holiday make us think of our connections to the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.
Today’s typical Thanksgiving dinner menu is actually more than 200 years younger than the 1621 harvest celebration and reflects the holiday’s roots in Colonial New England of the 1700s and Victorian nostalgia for an idyllic time when hearth and home, family and community were valued over industrial progress and change.
While food historians have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available at the First Thanksgiving, deducing just what was served at the famous feast is still a tough nut to crack. The only contemporary description of the First Thanksgiving reports that they had seasonal wildfowl, and venison brought by the Wampanoag was presented to key Englishmen such as Governor Bradford and Captain Standish. In the letter where he describes the First Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow also details the bounty of his new home in Plymouth:
"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. Here are grapes, white and read, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and read, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, read, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed...
These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God t hanks who hath dealt so favorably with us."
While many elements of the modern holiday menu are very different from the foods eaten in 1621, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both celebrations. The impulse to share hospitality with others and give thanks for abundance transcends the menu.
Edward Winslow’s final comment about the First Thanksgiving is a sentiment shared by many Americans on the nation’s holiday: "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."
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