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The Real Thanksgiving Foods: Facts and Common Misconceptions

Posted By Jamie K Oxendine November 20th, 2011 Last Updated on: November 4th, 2021


What do you think when you hear “traditional Thanksgiving foods?”

You might be thinking of turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, three-bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie… and, in a sense, those are traditional Thanksgiving foods because Americans have been eating them every fall for over 200 years.

But are they the traditional foods of the earliest Thanksgiving or what is often called The First Thanksgiving?

Not really.

A Brief History of Thanksgiving

One must remember that the Puritan Pilgrims were not the first to celebrate a Day of Thanksgiving as European Colonists to the New World. Feasts of Thanksgiving and Harvest Gatherings were long practiced and well established among the indigenous peoples long before any Europeans came to establish the New Americas.

Also, Thanksgiving Feasts had already been celebrated by Spanish, Dutch, and French Explorers in the New World on both the East Coast and the Great South West long before the Puritan Pilgrims.

English settlers in the Virginia Jamestown Colony also had Feasts of Thanksgiving before the arrival of the Puritan Pilgrims to present-day Massachusetts.

Thus the Thanksgiving of 1621 with the Puritan Pilgrims that gets so much credit for the “holiday” was far from the first Thanksgiving with European visitors here in what's now the United States of America. 

For this analysis, we shall look at the foods of the Thanksgiving Feasts at Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Real Thanksgiving Day Foods

First, take a look at the Thanksgiving with the Jamestown Colonists. Jamestown was settled in 1607 and the main American Indian tribes in the area was the Powhatan Confederacy. The first couple years of the Jamestown settlement were a total disaster. It was not until John Smith laid down the law so to speak along with the help of the Native Americans and some British supply ships that the colony was able to even survive.

Some items at the Jamestown Feast would have been:

Meats: Deer, Turkey, Duck, Goose, Rabbit, Chicken

Seafood: Fish, Shrimp, Clams, Oysters, Scallops, Crab, Lobster

Vegetables: Corn, Beans, Squash, Pumpkins, Wild Onions, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, Cabbage, Collards,

Fruits: Blueberries, Blackberries, Strawberries, Grapes, Plums, Raspberries

Other: Walnuts, Acorns, Pecans, Sunflowers, Grain Breads, Grits, Eggs, Cheese

Next, take a glimpse at the Thanksgiving among the Puritan Pilgrims or the so-called “First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth. They would have had some of the following item

Meats: Deer, Turkey, Duck, Goose, Swan, Chicken

Seafood: Fish, Shrimp, Clams, Oysters, Crab, Lobster, Eel, Mussels

Vegetables: Corn, Beans, Squash, Pumpkins, Wild Onions, Native Turnips, Carrots, Collards, Cabbage

Fruits: Blueberries, Cranberries, Grapes, Plums

Other: Walnuts, Acorns, Popcorn, Maple Syrup, Chestnuts, Hickory Nuts, Grain Breads, Eggs, Cheese

Food Use

The main meats for both Jamestown and Plymouth would be deer and seafood. Other meats would also include fowl and specifically that of turkey, duck, goose and even swan.

The Europeans would have no problems with cooking and eating deer, duck, goose or rabbit. The American Wild Turkey would be something new. Turkey is indigenous to The New World. It did remind the Europeans of the Guinea Fowl and they made the mistake of calling it the Turkey Fowl as the Guinea Fowl was imported to Europe via Turkey.

Grain breads as well as chicken, eggs, and cheese and were provided by the Europeans. They did, after all, raise the chickens they had brought over. They also produced cheese from goats they brought over.

While seafood was not new to Europeans, the British Colonists, however, were not as avid seafood consumers as some Spanish and those from the mainland of Italy. Aside from basic fish, Brits were not large consumers of other seafoods such as clams, oysters, lobster, scallops, crab, mussels and eel and more that were very popular and common among the Native Americans on the East Coast of the New World.

Vegetables of the New World were vast and many. But they varied also by location and climate. For example, while cranberries were a staple of the Native American Tribes in what would be called the New England area, they were not common among what was the Virginia Tribes. On the other hand, the sweet potato (not a real potato) was common in the South East but not in the North East.

One food common across all of Native America from the Atlantic to the Pacific was corn. Of course, the term “corn” is really the English word for any type of grain. In fact, the word “corn” was a synonym for “grain” in the English language and would include all grains: wheat, barley, rye, oat, and more. Any new grain that the English came across in exploration across the globe was automatically referred to as “corn.”

Misconceptions about Native American Foods

Native American Foods - Yam

Sweet potatoes are commonly mistaken as yams.

To specify this new grain from the indigenous peoples, the Europeans began to use the term “Indian Corn.” But in actuality, all corn is “Indian Corn” as what became known as corn was introduced to the world by the American Indians. Over time a grave mistake was made in referring to all yellow corn or hybrid corn as just “corn” and any “colored corn” as “Indian Corn.” Trying to correct this measure has been absolutely moot for hundreds of years.

Another common error in the naming of an indigenous food is confusing the sweet potato for the yam. The sweet potato is not a potato at all and has nothing to do with the potato family. This starchy edible is really a member of the Morning Glory family and grew only in the New World.

It was not until the Europeans came across the white potato that they gave this the name sweet potato as it had more sugar and thus it was sweet. Calling this new vegetable a yam came from the African Slaves. This potato heavily reminded them of the yam they knew of in Africa. The misnomer stuck and even today the USDA still uses the word yams when referring to sweet potatoes.

Contrary to popular belief, apples and potatoes were not a part of any of the Thanksgivings before the 18th Century. While the potato was a Native American food and only indigenous to the New World, it was a product of South America and did not arrive in North American until the 18th Century.

So that means no potatoes or potato items (no mashed potatoes and gravy) at the Thanksgivings of Jamestown or Plymouth. Apple trees had not been established yet in the New World.

Also contrary to so-called non-Native authoritarians of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving saying there was no popcorn and or any kind of desserts, they are very mistaken. It has been said by both the English and the Dutch of the New England Thanksgiving that the Native Americans appeared with all kinds of foods including “…skins of popped corn….”

Seeing that the Wampanoag did not have barley, wheat, oats, or rye, we know that none of those was the “popped corn” the English or Dutch spoke of. Also, wild rice was not as common among the Wampanoag and then we know that the “popped corn” in the skins from the Wampanoag was some kind of popped corn.

But one thing is for certain there were no pies as of yet. So there was no apple pie, no pumpkin pie and not sweet potato pie. That would come much later. But with the various breads of the Europeans and the addition of Native American fruits and Maple Syrup in the Northeast there would have been what one may call crude cobblers, sweet breads, or English Puddings.

Conclusion

Nearly all the foods written about in this article were provided with the help of the Native Americans either by direct supply or through their education of the Puritans and Jamestown settlers on how to grow certain crops. The English and the Dutch would have provided ingredients that they grew, but we must remember that most of the crops they grew were given to them by the indigenous peoples.

The only difference is that the Europeans would have what would appear to be strange cooking habits of the type of food the American Indians were accustomed to eating. The Europeans would also have provided various breads from the grains they brought over as well as from the new grains they now encountered in the New Americas. They would also have their domesticated animals of chickens and goats to provide eggs.

Of course, the Thanksgiving meals most Americans have today are not as grand as these huge three or four-day feasts of the past.

 

Whether you're preparing more traditional Thanksgiving foods or gathering recipes for a modern interpretation of the meals served at “The First Thanksgiving,” the most important thing is that you give thanks for the opportunity to enjoy a holiday of family, friends and loved ones.


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About Jamie K Oxendine

Jamie K. Oxendine, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, is the Native American Liaison and Education Consultant for Ohio University in Athens. Ohio. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Toledo teaching “Indians of North America” and at Lourdes University teaching “Native American Culture” for the Lifelong Learning Center. A frequent speaker on Native American topics, he serves as the director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation in Ohio. As a recording artist, he was three times been nominated for a NAMMY (Native American Music Award).



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aaron woods

very interesting. I am in culinary school and have done homework in history. sometimes I want to cry. this food industry is real but not good. our ancestors tried to explain that this hamburger is wrong! I believe them today. Aho

Craig

I always wanted to eat Swan.

Quinn O'Connor

Great article to read. Learning about Thanksgiving the right way is very important.

Noah York

Wow, now I’m hungry. Any of those foods listed would make for a great Thanksgiving in my opinion. I’m curious how the Native Americans used the acorn. Was it ground and used to make bread or something else completely?

Alvelia Farmer

Thanks for sharing this informative article! I wonder how we strayed so far from the original foods. & why did we decide to stick with Turkey & Ham as the main dishes for Thanksgiving? Some deer or duck would be different!

Mark Chase

It was fascinating reading about the true origins of Thanksgiving. I had some idea that the food would have been fairly different during the colonial times but did not know about the misnomers associated with certain foods. Keep up the great work with these historic and informative postings.

Lee Slusher

it is cool to see where some of the different foods come from during the Thanksgiving holiday. But I also wanna know why do we not have seafoods and deer during Thanksgiving anymore Turkey is good but deer and Lobster sounds like a good combo.

Tom Iron Eagle

Awesome Jamie, I knew of some of these but for some of the foods and others I had no idea. Thanks!

Jenice Marie missick-Herben

It of great pleasres

Carla Wilkins

I was surprised with the different foods.

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