Turkey, Mashed Potatoes with gravy, Bread Stuffing/Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Three Bean Casserole, Macaroni & Cheese, Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkin Pie … traditional Thanksgiving foods right?
Well, they are traditional Thanksgiving foods in the sense that Americans have been eating some of these foods and other foods as Thanksgiving staples for over 200 years.
But are they the traditional foods of the earliest Thanksgiving or what is often called The First 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 Native Americans long before any Europeans came to the New World.
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 get so much credit for the “Holiday” was far from the first Thanksgiving with European visitors here in the New World.
For this analysis, we shall look at the foods of the Thanksgiving Feasts at Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA.
First, take a look at the Thanksgiving with the Jamestown Colonists.
Jamestown was settled in 1607 and the main Native American 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 foods 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 foods:
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
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. The 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 was imported to Europe via Turkey.
Grain breads as well as chicken, eggs, and cheese and would have been provided by the Europeans as they raised chickens they had brought over as well as produce cheese from goats also 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 like 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 would be 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.”
To specify this new grain of the Native Americans, 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 error in the naming of an indigenous food is that of the lonely sweet potato and mistakenly calling it a 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. The sweet 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 into 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 North East there would have been what one may call crude cobblers, sweet breads and or actually English Puddings.
Just about all the foods written about in this paper would have been provided with the help of the Native Americans either by direct supply or by the teachings from them to the Puritans and to the Jamestown settlers on how to grow certain crops. The English and the Dutch would have provided foods that they grew but we must remember that most of the crops they grew were indigenous to the New World as given them by the Native Americans.
The only difference is that the Europeans would have what would appear to be strange cooking habits of the foods the Native Americans 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 World. They would also have their domesticated animals of chickens and goats to provide eggs and cheese.
Of course the meal most Americans have today is not as grand as these huge 3-4 day feasts of the past.
Whether you prepare foods of the past or foods of the present and whether you want to be historically accurate or very new wave, the main purpose is that you give Thanks for the opportunity to enjoy a holiday of family, friends and loved ones.
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Bercovitch, Sacvan. 1986. A Library of American Puritan Writings. Volume 9 – The Seventeenth Century. Ams Press, Inc.: New York, NY.
Bradford, William & Edward Winslow. 1622. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of Pilgrims at Plymouth. London.
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