As a granddaughter of the Mayflower by my direct descent from eight (yes 8!) of its passengers, I’m eager to tell the tale of the first Thanksgiving feast enjoyed by the first settlers of Plymouth Plantation.
The modern Thanksgiving holiday tradition traces its origins to a 1621 celebration at Plimouth (original spelling) in present-day Massachusetts. There is also evidence for an earlier harvest celebration on the continent by Spanish explorers in Saint Augustine, Florida during 1565, as well as thanksgiving feasts in the Virginia Colony. Many historians point out that the first thanksgiving celebration in the United States was held in Virginia, and not in Plymouth. Thanksgiving services were routine in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607. A day of Thanksgiving was codified in the founding charter of Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia in 1619. I have no idea why these feasts of giving thanks aren’t thought of as the “first thanksgiving.” I suppose it’s because the celebrations weren’t shared with the local Native American tribes in the area. And if they were, no one made a big deal out of it like the Plymouth colonists did.
The 1621 Plymouth feast and thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. Since the English already had participated in harvest festivals for hundreds of years beforehand, and the Native Americans traditionally celebrated the end of a harvest season, the two came together to give thanks for the peace between them and help offered by the Wampanoag. Initially, the Plymouth colony did not have enough food to feed the 50 out of 102 original colonists who were fortunate to survive the first winter. Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the colonists how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them (Squanto had learned English while enslaved in Europe and during travels in England). Additionally the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient. Several colonists gave personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims, most of whom were Separatists, are not to be confused with Puritans who established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby (current day Boston) in 1628 and had very different religious beliefs.
From the writings of Edward Winslow, an original colonist, in Mourt’s Relation:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. 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 the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The colonists boiled and roasted their food. The venison was turned on spits over glowing coals and whole wild fowl was prepared the same. Turkey Sobaheg, taught to the settlers by the Wampanoag, was stewed with herbs and vegetables in large copper or brass pots on the hearth inside homes, along with other vegetables. Sobaheg is the Wampanoag word for stew. Like most stews, this dish is easily adapted to seasonal ingredients. The ground nuts help to thicken the sobaheg. Variations of this dish are still made in Wampanoag country today.
1/2 pound dry beans (white, red, brown or spotted kidney-shaped beans)
1/2 pound white hominy corn or yellow samp or coarse grits, available from Gonsalves or Goya at many grocery stores
1 pound turkey meat (legs or breast, with bone and skin)
3 quarts cold water
1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 inch-lengths
1/2 pound winter squash, trimmed and cubed
1/2 cup raw sunflower seed meats, pounded to a course flour (or pounded walnuts)
dried onion and/or garlic to taste
clam juice or salt to taste (optional)
Combine dried beans, corn, turkey, seasonings and water in a large pot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, turn down to a very low simmer, and cook for about 2 1/2 hours. Stir occasionally to be certain bottom is not sticking.
When dried beans are tender, but not mushy, break up turkey meat, removing skin and bones. Add green beans and squash, and simmer very gently until they are tender.
Add sunflower or nut flour, stirring until thoroughly blended.
Governor William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:
Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
The only written record of the famous feast tells us that the celebration lasted three days and included wild fowl and deer. Culinary historians such as Kathleen Curtin at Plimoth Plantation rely on period journals and cookbooks, paintings from the time, Wampanoag oral histories, and archaeological evidence. Several excerpts from her research are shared below and denoted by quote marks.
Wampanoag Boiled Bread
Boiled bread is a small patty made mostly of cornmeal with crushed nuts and berries added in. It is dropped in a pot of boiling water and when done, rises to the top.
“Most of today’s classic Thanksgiving dishes weren’t served in 1621,” says Curtin. “These traditional holiday dishes became part of the menu after 1700. When you’re trying to figure out just what was served, you need to do some educated guesswork. Ironically, it’s far easier to discern what wasn’t on the menu during those three days of feasting than what was!”
Popular myths aside, potatoes—white or sweet, sweet corn, bread-based stuffing, and pumpkin pie would not have been found on the 1621 table. However, the colonists may have used nuts and herbs to stuff birds.
Instead, the table was probably loaded with native fruits like plums, melons, grapes, and cranberries, plus local vegetables such as leeks, wild onions, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and squash. (English crops such as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, onions, carrots, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme might have also been on hand.) The Wampanoag gift of five deer, native birds and game, fish (bass, cod, eel) and shellfish such as lobster, mussels, and clams were undoubtedly part of the fare.
“Seethed” Mussels with Parsley and Vinegar
This 17th-century mussel recipe makes a perfect first course. The Mayflower passengers were probably thrilled to find an abundance of mussels and other seafood when they finally reached land. No doubt their diet of dried peas, salted meats, and oats became old fairly quickly after the first week at sea. Click through for a recipe adapted from The Second Part of the Good Huswives Jewel by Thomas Dawson, 1597.
There is no positive way to know if they had any roasted turkey that day, but we do know the region held plenty of wild turkeys, “and both the native Wampanoag Indians and English colonists ate them,” writes Curtin in Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from the Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. That doesn’t explain why turkeys have become the traditional centerpiece, but at least it gives us a feeling of connectedness to our forefathers to imagine the Plymouth colonists gnawing on a turkey leg as we do nearly four centuries later.
The Pilgrims likely drank just water. We know the English colonists grew a few acres of barley, but given how long it takes to brew and ferment beer, it seems unlikely they would’ve had any made by that time. “Wine, considered a finer beverage than beer, may have been brought across by some travelers on the Mayflower. It was frequently mentioned in later accounts of supplies to the colonies. By the mid-1600s, cider would become the main beverage of New Englanders, but in 1621 Plymouth, there were not any apples yet.”
The Pilgrims held an even greater Thanksgiving celebration in 1623, after a switch from communal farming to privatized farming, a fast, and a refreshing 14-day rain resulted in a larger harvest. William DeLoss Love calculates that this thanksgiving was made on Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day prior to the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, but before the fall harvest. In Love’s opinion, this 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority, (Governor Bradford) and not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.
Referring to the 1623 harvest after the nearly catastrophic drought, Bradford wrote:
And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had … pretty well … so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.
— William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
The meaty leftover carcasses from one meal were no doubt simmered to use the broth for the next. Traditionally, English fare was served with a gravy or “sauce” such as mustard, which was very popular. Contrary to common thought, 17th-century English dishes were anything but bland. Cooks at the hearth made skillful use of a variety of herbs, spices, dried fruits, and beer or wine.
Curds are a soft cheese like cottage cheese or ricotta. These fritters are a lot like thin pancakes or crepes. This recipe is from the 1594 cookbook The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin. pp. 47-48.
To make Curde Frittors
Take the yolks of ten Egs, and breake them in a pan, and put to them one handful Curdes and one handful of fine flower, and sttraine them all together, and make a batter, and if it be not thicke ynough, put more Curdes in it, and salt to it. Then set it on the fyre in a frying pan, with such stuffe as ye will frie them with, and when it is hot, with a ladle take part of your batter, and put of it into the panne, and let it run as smal as you can, and stir then with a sticke, and turne them with a scummer, and when they be fair and yellow fryed, take them out, and cast Sugar upon them, and serve them foorth.
curds (ricotta, cottage or other soft cheese)
wheat or corn flour
cooking oil or butter
Make a thin batter with the eggs and equal amounts of curds and flour. Season with salt.
Heat a small amount of cooking oil in your frying pan. When the oil is hot, pour in the batter and tip the pan to make the batter spread very thin (that’s what “let it run as small as you can” in the recipe means). They should be like crepes. When brown on one side, use your knife to flip them over or slide them onto a plate and flip them over into the pan. Add more oil to the pan when needed. Serve with sugar sprinkled on the top if you wish.
Samp: What is it? And how do you eat it?
Coarsely ground hominy called samp is of Native American origin, coming from the Narragansett word “nasàump.” New Englanders since early colonial times have referred to cornmeal mush or cereal as “samp.” Like hominy, samp is prepared from dehulled kernels of maize, but the two are produced by different processes. If the word “samp” dropped out of modern English, “hominy” hung in there, and eventually became “grits” in the American South. From the 1600s book Two Voyages to New England, by John Josselyn, a traveler to New England:
“It is light of digestion, and the English make a kind of Loblolly of it to eat with Milk, which they call Sampe; they beat it in a Morter, and sift the flower out of it; the remainder they call Hominey, which they put into a Pot of two or three Gallons, with Water, and boyl it upon a gentle Fire till it be like a Hasty Puden; they put of this into Milk, and so eat it.”
2 cups coarse corn grits – available from Gonsalves or Goya at many grocery stores
4 cups water
1 cup milk
¼ cup sugar
Bring water to a boil in large saucepan with a heavy bottom. Add the corn grits and stir. Simmer until they are soft, about 10 minutes, and the water has been absorbed. Serve with milk and sugar.
Stewed Pompion (Pumpkin): An Ancient New England Standing Dish
One of the earliest written recipes from New England is Stewed Pompion, (all pumpkins/squash were called pompion by 17th century English people). Josselyn called it a “standing dish” implying this sort of pumpkin dish was eaten every day or even at every meal. He called it “ancient” because English housewives had cooked this recipe in New England for a long time.
“The Ancient New England standing dish.
But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, etc.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.” (HA! If you decide to make this, have a can of air freshener near to hand!)
4 cups of cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) squash, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.
Pease Porridge from 1597, Thomas Dawson, The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, London, Page 26.
A 16th-Century Recipe for White Peas Pottage: Take a quart of white pease or more & seeth them in faire water close, until they doe cast their huskes, the which cast away, as long as any wil come up to the topp, and when they be gon, then put into the peaze two dishes of butter, and a little vergious, with pepper and salt, and a little fine powder of March, and so let it stand till you will occupy it, and then serve it upon sops. You may seethe Porpose and Seale in your pease, serving it forth two peeces in a dish.
Notes: Powder of March (or Merchant’s Powder) was a pre-ground seasoning made of a combination of several spices. One example was made of pepper and ginger. White peas (or old peas) are today’s modern dried peas.
White Pease Pottage
(A modern adaptation)
2 cups peas (split peas, or whole dried peas may be used)
8 to 10 cups water
Butter, to taste
Vinegar, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
Ginger, to taste
Boil peas in plenty of water until soft. Look for thick pea soup consistency.
Taste peas and season to taste with butter, vinegar, pepper, salt and ginger. Serve over toasted bread.
The dates of Thanksgiving in the era of the founding fathers until the time of Lincoln had been decided by each state on various dates. The first Thanksgiving celebrated on the same date by all states was in 1863 by presidential proclamation. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date of Thanksgiving in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 20th century. And so, in an effort by President Abraham Lincoln (influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday), to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states, proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November.
It was not until December 26, 1941, that the unified date changed to the fourth Thursday (and not always final) in November -this time by federal legislation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after two years earlier offering his own proclamation to move the date earlier, with the reason of giving the country an economic boost, agreed to sign a bill into law with Congress, making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth (not final) Thursday in November.
Give replicating the first Thanksgiving Day dinner a whirl by cooking up Stewed Turkey with Herbs and Onions, Seethed Mussels with Parsley and Vinegar, Samp, Curd Fritters, and Stewed Pompion. If you want to put a venison roast or whole turkey on a spit over an open fire, do take pics and share them with me! Here’s what my plate looked like last year. I tried to finish it all, but my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. 😊