Category Archives: Holidays

Original Thanksgiving Feast

Thanksgiving Feast

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.

Image by InAweofGod'sCreation
Image by InAweofGod’sCreation

The Hunt

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.

Fresh Pickings

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.

Pumpkin Pie

Image by Sea Turtle
Image by Sea Turtle

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.

Happy Thanksgiving!


How the Thanksgiving Holiday Evolved

The Holiday Season is now upon us. In honor of all the different holidays that are celebrating in November and December, I wanted to post a series of articles in connection with the season, beginning with . . .

The Thanksgiving Holiday

 Image by Licht,
Image by Licht,

Even though there were earlier American Thanksgiving services, in the Commonwealth of Virginia (1607) and also at the the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia (1610), American children spend their early school years learning  about The First Thanksgiving at the Plymouth Plantation – shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. From there, some of it is accurate and some has been embellished through the telling over the years.

The early settlers definitely had reason to celebrate. It was their first real harvest, and they wanted to share it with the native people who helped make it possible. The festival was a three-day celebration which included hunting, harvesting, fishing, games, and lots of food to celebrate the fall harvest. Imagine the work it took to put on a feast in November 1621!

During the celebration, a feast of venison, duck, geese, corn, barley, and perhaps cranberries and nuts would have been served. Although wild turkey was hunted in those days, no mention is made of turkey in any documentation of this celebration. Perhaps this harvest meal didn’t fall during the season most likely to provide turkey for the table; but, we do know that duck and geese were plentiful.

The foods we think of as staples for Thanksgiving Dinner, like squash and potatoes, hadn’t made their way to New England in time for the first feast either. As a matter of fact, many dishes we think of as traditional today wouldn’t find their way to a Thanksgiving table until almost 200 years later.

Another little known fact is that the first Thanksgiving harvest celebration of 1621 didn’t spark subsequent holidays each year. It wasn’t until 1789 when President George Washington declared the first national Thanksgiving Holiday that America had the excuse to feast again in this harvest tradition. However, this declaration also did not repeat each year either. So, again, the Thanksgiving tradition was forgotten for a while.

Then in 1827, author Sara Josepha Hale started a campaign to establish a yearly national Thanksgiving Holiday, inspired in part by a written diary of pilgrim life. This effort took almost thirty years to complete, in which time the author spent time promoting her campaign by publishing many of her favorite recipes, including pumpkin pie, turkey, and stuffing, which many believe is how the “traditional” Thanksgiving table we know today got its start. Thank you, Miss Hale!

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the Thanksgiving holiday be celebrated each year on the final Thursday of November, and so it was, until 1939, during the Great Depression.

In an effort to give retailers more time to make money during the holiday shopping season, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday up a week earlier. Americans were not happy with the idea of their beloved Thanksgiving turning into a money-making enterprise, so the President bowed to the people and in 1941 he signed a bill setting Thanksgiving firmly, and forever, on the 4th Thursday in November – each and every year.

So now you know! Even though many of us (including me) assumed that Thanksgiving had been an American tradition from the beginning (1621), in reality, Thanksgiving as we know it took 200 years to become established.

Image By Chef Jess PhD
Image By Chef Jess PhD

Throughout those early years and up until today America and the way we eat has changed a lot. Today’s table may not resemble the table set by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag in Plymouth that Autumn day. But, the spirit of the holiday remains the same – being thankful for those around you who share the burden and the pleasure of reaching a common goal.

Happy Thanksgiving!