Imagine your own family’s traditional Thanksgiving table. There is a very good chance that in the center of the table sits a big turkey complete with Mom’s special stuffing, surrounded by bowls of whipped potatoes, hot rolls, and cranberry sauce, plus piping hot dishes of the ever popular green bean casserole and candied yams. And . . . finally, there is the dessert where Pumpkin pie is certain to be among the choices.
These are only a few of the dishes we think of when we imagine a Thanksgiving table in America. But, how many of these dishes actually reflect the original feast? Let’s take a look just for fun.
A big golden brown turkey stuffed with an abundance of bread dressing takes center stage at most American tables during the Thanksgiving feast. But, that twenty-pound bird is really the product of modern times.
According to historical notes, a hunting trip was organized for the first three-day harvest feast. The hunting group would have bagged whatever was plentiful, which was very likely a mix of duck and geese, along with other small wild fowl, and possibly a few wild turkeys along the way. The birds would have been stuffed with onions and herbs, and not with any sort of bread-like stuffing.
In addition to the variety of wild game birds, deer were also plentiful and the meat was given as a gift from the Wampanoag tribe to the Pilgrims for the feast. This venison would have been roasted over an open fire pit, some served immediately on the first day, while the remaining meat slow simmered for stew to be served over the next few days.
From The Waters
The region also had an abundance of seafood. Mussels, oysters, fish, clams, and even lobster were part of the diet in the region, so it makes sense that these foods were part of any feast.
Large fish may have been stuffed with onions, other vegetables, and herbs, then roasted over an open fire. During one of the three days, this may have actually been served as the main dish.
Because this three-day celebration was held during the fall season, we know the foods harvested in this region’s climate would have included onions, carrots, cabbage, beans, turnips, and even some late season corn.
The onions may have been used to flavor other dishes, but would also have been roasted and served as a side dish. Large pots of carrots, cabbage, and beans (flavored with herbs) were also roasted on open fires.
Corn was not the super-sweet and tender variety we enjoy today. Late season corn, in particular, would have been a bit starchy. It was most likely cut from the cob and thrown into a skillet to simmer, probably along with other vegetables. Some of the corn would have been dried and ground to make a coarse meal suitable for making bread.
Even though the settlers had learned to enjoy some tubers, like turnips, they never discovered the deliciousness of potatoes (russet or sweet). These were introduced to America later by Spanish explorers and the European settlers. So potatoes, one of the staples of the modern day Thanksgiving dinner, were not part of the original feast.
Fresh fruits and berries would have been plentiful. Plums, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries were probably served in a variety of ways, none of which were sweet. Sugar was scarce,so the dishes made with fruits and berries were typically tart. There was definitely nothing similar to the cranberry relish we know today.
Finally, we come to one of the dishes has Thanksgiving stamped all over it – pumpkin pie. Although it is true that pumpkin was found on tables in the region during the time of the first Thanksgiving feast, it would not have been in the form of a pie.
The settlers did not have fully equipped kitchens or pantries such as we know today. They cooked in fire pits, not ovens. And the pantry did not have butter or refined flour to produce tender pie crusts.
Instead, there is documentation that shows the settlers created a sweetened pumpkin dish by carving out the pumpkin and filling the insides with honey, milk, and even berries, then putting the top back on the pumpkin and roasting it whole in the fire pit. Once removed and cooled slightly, the creamy insides were scooped out and served warm. Except for the missing crust, this sounds pretty close to our traditional pumpkin pie and was probably a tasty early predecessor.
I hope you will share these early beginnings with your family as you enjoy the ease and abundance that makes our holiday feasts so wonderful.