What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes but the First Thanksgiving likely included wildfowl, corn, porridge and venison. (Bettmann / Corbis)

What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?

The history of the holiday meal tells us that turkey was always the centerpiece, but other courses have since disappeared

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(Continued from page 1)

According to the culinarian, the Wampanoag, like most eastern woodlands people, had a “varied and extremely good diet.” The forest provided chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts. “They grew flint corn (multicolored Indian corn), and that was their staple. They grew beans, which they used from when they were small and green until when they were mature,” says Wall. “They also had different sorts of pumpkins or squashes.”

As we are taught in school, the Indians showed the colonists how to plant native crops. “The English colonists plant gardens in March of 1620 and 1621,” says Wall. “We don’t know exactly what’s in those gardens. But in later sources, they talk about turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkins as the sorts of things that they were growing.”

Of course, to some extent, the exercise of reimagining the spread of food at the 1621 celebration becomes a process of elimination. “You look at what an English celebration in England is at this time. What are the things on the table? You see lots of pies in the first course and in the second course, meat and fish pies. To cook a turkey in a pie was not terribly uncommon,” says Wall. “But it is like, no, the pastry isn’t there.” The colonists did not have butter and wheat flour to make crusts for pies and tarts. (That’s right: No pumpkin pie!) “That is a blank in the table, for an English eye. So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat and more meat,” says Wall.

Meat without potatoes, that is. White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America. Also, there would have been no cranberry sauce. It would be another 50 years before an Englishman wrote about boiling cranberries and sugar into a “Sauce to eat with. . . .Meat.” Says Wall: “If there was beer, there were only a couple of gallons for 150 people for three days.” She thinks that to wash it all down the English and Wampanoag drank water.

All this, naturally, begs a follow-up question. So how did the Thanksgiving menu evolve into what it is today?

Wall explains that the Thanksgiving holiday, as we know it, took root in the mid-19th century. At this time, Edward Winslow’s letter, printed in a pamphlet called Mourt’s Relation, and Governor Bradford’s manuscript, titled Of Plimoth Plantation, were rediscovered and published. Boston clergyman Alexander Young printed Winslow’s letter in his Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, and in the footnotes to the resurrected letter, he somewhat arbitrarily declared the feast the first Thanksgiving. (Wall and others at Plimoth Plantation prefer to call it “the harvest celebration in 1621.”) There was nostalgia for colonial times, and by the 1850s, most states and territories were celebrating Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, , a real trendsetter for running a household, was a leading voice in establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. Beginning in 1827, Hale petitioned 13 presidents, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln. She pitched her idea to President Lincoln as a way to unite the country in the midst of the Civil War, and, in 1863, he made Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Throughout her campaign, Hale printed Thanksgiving recipes and menus in Godey’s Lady’s Book. She also published close to a dozen cookbooks. “She is really planting this idea in the heads of lots of women that this is something they should want to do,” says Wall. “So when there finally is a national day of Thanksgiving, there is a whole body of women who are ready for it, who know what to do because she told them. A lot of the food that we think of—roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, even some of the mashed potato dishes, which were kind of exotic then—are there.”

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