- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 19, 2000

Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. It is time to break out the pumpkin pie, the cornbread stuffing, the cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, just like the Pilgrims did.

Except the Pilgrims didn't.

Among the many myths surrounding the traditional day of thanks is the menu. There were no potatoes and no pie. There was no cornbread or stuffing. There was not even a fork or a long table.

There was, however, a three-day party with heaping plates of wild fowl, venison and even a few roasted swans or raccoons.

"Every year, we think of a traditional Thanksgiving," says Kathleen Curtin, a food historian at Plimoth Plantation, the Plymouth, Mass., living-history museum and historical society devoted to the Pilgrims. "But what we think of as traditional has a lot more to do with the Victorian era than with the Pilgrims. The myth of Thanksgiving and its traditional foods was created around the turn of the century."

Although Ms. Curtin has been studying the Pilgrims and their food for years, the menu and preparation of their famous feast remains something of a mystery. So do the guest list, the head count and how the Indians came to be there.

There is only one written acc-ount of the settlers' harvest feast of 1621, which later came to be known as the first Thanksgiving. In December 1621, Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger, wrote in a letter to England:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor and upon the captain and others.

Historians are still unsure how the 90 Indians came to be involved in the feast, which was held sometime between late September and early November of 1621.

"There are various possibilities," says Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indian Program at Plimoth Plantation. "It never says anywhere that the natives were invited. Did they just show up? That is unlikely, too. There is talk that the English might have been shooting guns, and maybe the Indians just came to see what was going on. If they knew they were going to a dinner, it would have been native custom to bring corn or cornmeal, maybe even some fish or game such as raccoon or bear."

Once at the party, it is unlikely that the Pilgrims and Indians even sat together. Not only were there not enough tables and chairs to seat the estimated 150 people at the feast, but the two groups had a tenuous relationship, Ms. Curtin says.

"The Pilgrims and Native Americans probably were not dining en masse together," she says. "The natives probably ate by themselves. Think about how a wedding today is, where the bride's people all sit together and the groom's people all sit together. It was similar in 1621, but these groups had even less in common."

Still, the five deer would have been a welcome addition.

"Venison was called 'the king's meat' in England," Ms. Curtin says. "It had such cache that it was [the] food of kings, dukes and earls."

The Puritan food pyramid was different from the one Americans know today. A 17th-century feast would have featured six meat selections and possibly one vegetable, Ms. Curtin says. Today's menu typically features one or two meats and several side dishes.

Even if turkey were on the table, the settlers wouldn't have called it by that name.

"Turkey was not called 'turkey' until much later," says Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of liberal arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "In the European imagination, anything exotic was named after the Far East."

Besides wild fowl, the menu quite likely included fish and shellfish common to the Massachusetts coast, such as cod and lobster, Ms. Curtin says. It also is likely that the meal included corn in some form, as in corn pudding or grits. There was no cornbread, she says, because there were no ovens.

Squash, pumpkins, dried blueberries, cranberries, onions, cabbage and nuts, all native to New England, also are likely to have been included in some form.

Ms. Curtin says the dishes probably were seasoned with provisions left over from the trip from England, such as limited amounts of sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, salt and vinegar. There even might have been small quantities of goat milk or cheese and eggs.

It is pretty unlikely that the meal included cranberry sauce, which required large amounts of sugar, or any sort of dessert, Ms. Curtin says. Pumpkin pie, for instance, would have required sugar as well as an oven, which the settlers did not have.

Their feast included neither popcorn nor potatoes, which had not yet arrived on these shores. There was no coffee or tea, which didn't become popular in England until later in the century.

The feast was a rather sober event, too. The settlers were out of the beer and ale brought from England. They might have had wine but probably made do with water, Ms. Curtin says.

If Indian women attended the feast (and there is no historical account that they did), they would have brought native dishes such as sobaheg (a venison-and-bean stew) or nasaump (a corn porridge with herbs or berries).

The bounty was eaten with spoons and fingers. "Forks were considered a foreign affectation," Ms. Curtin says. "We didn't see a fork in the Colony until 1741, 120 years after the Pilgrims."

The harvest feast of 1621 may be the traditional "first Thanksgiving," but it was hardly traditional for the Pilgrims and Indians it has come to represent. Relations between the two groups broke down shortly thereafter, and within 10 years, a large number of natives had been killed in the Pequot War and King Philip War or sold into slavery, Ms. Curtin says.

It was in 1637, after the Pequot War, that the Puritans called for a general day of thanking God for the New England Colonies. The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, but the observance fell by the wayside by 1815.

By the middle of the 19th century, most states (particularly in New England) and territories were again observing a day of thanks. The person most responsible for getting national recognition for the day was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, Mr. Ray says. In a campaign that lasted nearly 40 years, Mrs. Hale petitioned several presidents to get the day national recognition.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings. One celebrated on Oct. 6 recognized the Union victory at Gettysburg in July. The one held on the last Thursday in November celebrated victories at war and general blessings.

It was around that time that a day of thanks began to be associated mistakenly with the events of 1621. Searching for roots for their young country, New England historians found Winslow's description of the harvest feast. Americans, eager to identify with their Colonial forefathers, began associating the Pilgrims with Thanksgiving.

By the early 20th century, the myth of the Pilgrims and Indians and their idyllic harvest supper was spun complete with warm feelings, pumpkin pie and cornbread stuffing.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide