Pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and olives… gravy by the boatload, crisp salad and imported wine… sweet potatoes, ham, corn on the cob… nope, not a chance. The first Thanksgiving menu was as likely to have those foods as it was likely to have been served in a French sidewalk cafe.
The first Thanksgiving menu probably contained turkey, so we can settle on that. Wild turkeys are smaller than our hybrid versions that grace the freezer compartments of grocery stores. They have a smaller amount of white meat in proportion to the dark meat and the meat is a little less tender. The Pilgrims got the better deal when it comes to flavor, though!
They had no trouble getting water fowl, and the celebration also included venison and fish. The meat was probably roasted on spits over an open fire, taking a long time to cook through.
The vegetables were pretty much limited to squash, beans and corn, thanks to the infamous Squanto who showed them how to grow them. These were the Native American’s “three sisters,” which were planted together in a sort of symbiotic relationship. They also are nutritionally complementary, providing complete protein, and a high amount of vitamins and fiber.
While potatoes were originally from Peru and went to Europe from there, it’s not likely that the first Thanksgiving had them on the menu. Potatoes were not mentioned in the northern part of the New World until 1719, where they were probably brought over by Irish-Scottish emigrants.
Pumpkins, yes. Pumpkin pie, no. Pumpkins are native to North American and had been in long use by the Native Americans for food and other purposes. The first Thanksgiving could have been the scene of pumpkins baked in the coals of a fire without much added to them. (If you’ve never tasted fresh, baked pumpkin “as-is,” try it sometime.)
So, let’s start this Thanksgiving menu. It looks something like this:
* Roasted whole turkey
* Roasted duck
* Roasted goose
* Roasted venison
* Fish covered with leaves and baked in coals
* Whole pumpkin, baked in coals.
* Two or three other kinds of winter squash, possibly cut in pieces and cooked in large kettles.
* Beans, boiled with venison
* Small kettles of peas (their crop didn’t do well that year)
* Dried corn, boiled in water.
* Corn meal, mixed with other meals and leavened with eggs, baked in the coals – a type of corn bread.
* Baskets of walnuts, hickory nuts and ground nuts
* Dried fruit such as small, wild strawberries, raspberries, grapes, cherries and plums
* Pumpkin seasoned with honey
* Boiled corn meal, possibly served with honey
That was quite a Thanksgiving feast, wasn’t it?
Considering how easily food is obtained today, our Thanksgiving feasts are no doubt much less appreciated. Maybe if we’d try just one Thanksgiving limited to the food we produced ourselves, either by growing or hunting, we’d come to understand better the great celebration of Thanksgiving the Pilgrims had.