For some of us, feasting at Your Thanksgiving Dinner Table will be nothing like feasting At the first Thanksgiving table. How was it back then, and what would be the difference between the two tables? Let’s take a look and see what has changes.
We’ll start with a look at our own Thanksgiving table, or take a look at an iconic American picture of this holiday feast. Chances are, in the center of the table sits a big turkey stuffed with all kinds of savory goodies. Then you’ll find bowls of whipped potatoes and hand made gravy, plus a bowl of sweet cranberry relish, alongside piping hot dishes of the ever popular green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, and cheesy macaroni with golden buttery topping. Pumpkin pie is certain to be on the dessert menu as well as a few other dessert items.
This list is just a few dishes we think of when we imagine a Thanksgiving table in America. There would be others depending on where you live and what the family might be able to afford. How many of these dishes actually reflect the original feast? Probably not that many. Let’s take a look at what we might find and what it took to get it to the table.
We start with The Hunt
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 harvest feast, which was a three day affair. 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, with a few wild turkeys along the way and perhaps a rabbit or two. The birds would have been stuffed with onions and herbs, and not with any sort of bread-like stuffing.
With a table filled with wild game birds, you would think there would be no need for other meat. However, deer was plentiful and was actually given as a gift from the Wampanoag tribe to the Pilgrims for the feast. This venison would have most likely been roasted over an open fire pit, some served immediately while the the remaining meat slow simmered for stew to be served over the next few days.
Next there would be 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 by themselves. Flavored with herbs, large pots of carrots, cabbage, and beans were also roasted on open fires.
Corn was not the super-sweet and tender variety we are familiar with today. Late season corn, in particular, would be a bit starchy. It would have been 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 really caught on to potatoes, either russet or sweet. Introduced by Spanish explorers, the European settlers passed on potatoes for many years, making this one veggie that wasn’t on the first Thanksgiving table.
Fresh fruits and berries would be plentiful at this time of year. Plums, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries were served in a variety of ways, none of which would be sweet. Since sugar was scare, the dishes made with fruits and berries would typically be tart. We would definitely not have the sort of cranberry relish we know today.
And Fresh From The Waters
Along with game and fresh vegetables, fruits, and berries, 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 onion and 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.
About the Pumpkin Pie
And, finally, we come to one of the dishes we all can agree has Thanksgiving stamped all over it – pumpkin pie. Although it is true that pumpkin was found on tables in this 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 didn’t have butter or refined flour to produce a tender pie crust.
Instead, we have 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. Aside from the crust, this sounds pretty close to what we have today for pumpkin pie.
The next time you picture a typical Thanksgiving dinner, try throwing in a few images of the First Thanksgiving and see how your table-scape changes.
Now here’s a little secret that you many not know. In Mexico we still eat family meals cooked in the same way as the Pilgrims. In the cities there are ovens and stoves and baked goods just as in the states, however in most of the regions outside the larger cities,
people still cook without an oven. We live in one of those areas and many of our friends have adjusted to that lifestyle as well. The corn is not the sweet corn found in the states and the bread is the well known tortilla, made with a recipe that might be much the same as the the pilgrims recipe for bread. We grind the corn and make corn tortillas. You won’t find much Turkey but there is a lot of pork dishes, chicken dishes and wild caught fish at most larger parties. Celebrating Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Mexico however many of us from the states still get
together to celebrate it with a specially prepared meal. November is the warm season in the part of Mexico we live in, so most all of the afternoon meals are eaten outdoors. We also cook outdoors to avoid over heating our homes. I don’t think the pilgrims would have had to consider the heat at the time of year they enjoyed the first Thanksgiving, and this year it is so cold across the United States that I am sure that most of the dinners will be served indoors.
I hope you enjoy a Happy and warm Thanksgiving!