- Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 November 2010 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 24 November 2010 00:00
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It’s a tried and true combination for most of us: Turkey served with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pumpkin pie. Add to that some cranberry sauce and perhaps some oyster dressing, and that’s Thanksgiving. Make no mistake, the very thought of that combination is making me hungry. But the reality is that if I were a Pilgrim, one of those remarkable early settlers on the New England coast, celebrating my first Thanksgiving, my meal would have looked a bit different.
The first Pilgrim feast, the one we recall each year at Thanksgiving was a true expression of thanks. The settlers had survived their first year in the New World. It had been a tough season. Many in their numbers had died. And even then, in 1621, their suffering was by no means done. It would be several years before the colony could be considered a going concern. But, they had reaped a decent harvest, they were at peace with their Native American neighbors, and they wanted to give thanks for their good fortune. It was as simple as that. And while a pious people, they also knew how to throw a good party. This first Thanksgiving was a three-day affair. However, while it was a tasty, it wasn’t what we 21st century Americans would have considered a traditional Thanksgiving Day Dinner.
For one thing, and I don’t know how my grandmother would have coped with this, there wouldn’t have been any mashed potatoes. I love mashed potatoes, but in 1620, the potato, while having made it to the New World, thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh, hadn’t found its way to New England. This staple food wouldn’t be introduced into the New England diet until the early 1700s.
But that didn’t deter the Pilgrims. There was still plenty to eat. Though it isn’t specifically mentioned in many of the accounts of this early meal they probably, like us, had turkey. However, it might not have been all that popular. While abundant, the Pilgrims didn’t have the plump and tender farm raised turkey we’re used to. What they bagged, while tasty was wild, lean, and heavy on the dark meat. While that would have suited me fine - I like dark meat - it’s not altogether clear that the Pilgrims were that enamored with turkey.
They seemed instead, like their English cousins, to prefer goose. These were easier to hunt and far juicier. There was also plenty of duck. And, of course, while not a part of most Thanksgiving dinners today they would have had fish. Interestingly enough, when it came to fishing, their Native American neighbors introduced the Pilgrims to fish traps, and the Pilgrims showed the Indians how to make hooks. The cooking would have been simple. The fish were wrapped in leaves and covered in charcoal.
The Pilgrims invited the neighboring Native Americans to their feast. If it hadn’t been for the local Indians, the Pilgrims wouldn’t have survived their first winter. And the Indians, as was custom when invited to a feast, brought along freshly killed deer. So, venison, in considerable quantity, would have been on the menu.
In England, for centuries, one of the ways to make up for the absence of spices and sugar was to cook with fruit. The English were (and are) masters of this kind of combination and cranberries, grapes, apples and strawberries, all readily available in New England would have been a part of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving. And no, sadly, there wouldn’t have been any pumpkin pie. This would take a little while longer, but they did eat pumpkin. They sliced it up, cooked it over a fire, poured honey on it, and by all accounts it was tasty.
As for what they had to drink, that’s an open question. The Pilgrims, while Puritan, and of course, devout Christians, nonetheless had no particular objection to alcoholic beverages. Indeed, in their era, beer and wine were an alternative to what was often contaminated drinking water. However, it’s doubtful they had much on hand. If they had wine, it was only from the stocks they brought with them. And that couldn’t have been much. As for beer, they had planted hops that summer, but historians doubt they would have had time to brew any beer by the time of the First Thanksgiving. As for other drinks, there is no evidence they had much in the way of rum, or any other, harder distilled spirits. Alas, for the Pilgrims, this was probably a “dry” Thanksgiving.
I suppose the image we have of a modern Thanksgiving, turkey and all the trimmings, is probably a 20th century creation. However, that’s not the point. The Pilgrims were in a different place and time, and using the bounty of the New World, crafted a feast I think any of us would have enjoyed.