The First Thanksgiving Feast

They Ate What? Thanksgiving Dinner: Then and Now

They Ate What? Thanksgiving Dinner: Then and Now

The first Thanksgiving feast took place in 1621 in Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. Pilgrims and native Wampanoag celebrated the fall harvest for three days. The often-starving settlers rejoiced the harvest so fervently — including an exuberance of festive gunfire — that the Wampanoag believed the newcomers were being attacked. They arrived to offer assistance and were instead invited to sit and eat, celebrating the harvest.

While there is much debate about the first Thanksgiving, there is no debate about the deliciousness of Turkey Day foodstuffs. But what fare was enjoyed in 1621? Was it also delicious? Let’s find out! We compare our best historical guess of what was served at the first Thanksgiving feast to what is served at a modern, traditional Thanksgiving meal.

What’s On the Menu?

First Thanksgiving

Modern Thanksgiving


Meat

Deer, Fowl, Wild Turkey

First Thanksgiving: Meat

Turkey

Modern Thanksgiving: Meat

While wild turkeys were present in the area, turkey was not the main feature in 1621. The Pilgrims hunted for fowl of all types, including ducks, geese, swans, pigeons — and some wild turkey. Men were sent on a “fowling” mission for the feast and brought back a variety of fowl.

When the Wampanoag arrived, there was not enough food for everyone, so they hunted and brought back five deer, which were roasted over an open fire. It is commonly thought that some of the meat was used to make venison stew, which was a popular dish with the Wampanoag and Pilgrims.

Stuffing

Herbs, Nuts, Onions

First Thanksgiving: Stuffing

Bread-Based Stuffing

Modern Thanksgiving: Stuffing

The settlers had no flour and no means to make or bake bread, so instead of the traditional bread-based stuffing we enjoy today, they stuffed their birds with herbs, nuts, and onions, which were readily available in the region and added lots of flavor to the fowl.

Seafood

Mussels, Lobster, Fish, Oysters

First Thanksgiving: Seafood

Oyster Stuffing

Modern Thanksgiving: Seafood

In some locales today, oyster stuffing is a Thanksgiving staple. At the first Turkey Day, it was the real deal that was served. With the ocean’s abundant resources close by, all types of fish and shellfish featured heavily on the menu, including lobster — which was not considered a delicacy due to its ready availability.

Starches and Root Vegetables

Turnips, Ground Nuts

First Thanksgiving: Starches and Root Vegetables

Mashed Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes

Modern Thanksgiving: Starches and Root Vegetables

Today, we enjoy all manner of potato dishes on Thanksgiving, both savory and sweet. In 1621, neither white nor sweet potatoes had made their debut in North America. They were not an option because they simply didn’t exist in that part of the world. Instead, turnips were mashed and local nuts were ground up, which could have formed the inspiration for the mashed potatoes that are a staple of today’s Thanksgiving.

Green and Local Vegetables

Beans, Cabbage, Carrots

First Thanksgiving: Green and Local Vegetables

Green Beans, Green Bean Casserole

Modern Thanksgiving: Green and Local Vegetables

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag enjoyed local vegetables like beans, cabbage, and carrots with their feast. Today, green beans are a constant on almost every table. And even though green bean casserole was introduced by Campbell’s in 1955 as a means to sell more product, it has stuck as a Thanksgiving staple, with some families continuing to opt for a more traditional green bean with their meal.

Squash

Pumpkins and Regional Squash

First Thanksgiving: Squash

Pumpkins and Regional Squash

Modern Thanksgiving: Squash

Not a lot has changed here. They ate squash then. We eat squash now. It’s ready to rock in November, so roast it, mash it, and butter it. It’s still delicious after all these years.

Corn

Corn Meal Porridge

First Thanksgiving: Corn

Corn on the Cob, Sweet Corn

Modern Thanksgiving: Corn

The corn harvest was bountiful in 1621, so corn was prepared in many ways — the most common of which was grinding it down into meal and using it to make porridge and other dishes. Today, corn still holds strong, but is more often in its unground, whole-kernel form.

Bread

Cornbread

First Thanksgiving: Bread

Rolls, Biscuits, Cornbread

Modern Thanksgiving: Bread

Since there was no flour to be had and no ovens in which to bake, the only bread of the day was a form of cornbread made out of corn meal and water. Sometimes, animal fats, fruits, nuts, or berries would be added to the mix for a little pizazz. Today, bread is still a staple at the turkey table, but regional preferences have taken charge — whether you enjoy yeast rolls, biscuits, cornbread, or the like.

Cranberries

Raw Cranberries

First Thanksgiving: Cranberries

Cranberry Sauce

Modern Thanksgiving: Cranberries

Cranberries definitely had a place at the first Thanksgiving table — as they do today — though they were largely eaten raw in 1621. Sugar was not available at the time, and the technique of cooking cranberries down into a sauce would not be pioneered for some 50 years. Today, we enjoy a variety of cranberry sauces and jellies. Whether they are boiled in a pot with sugar and orange zest or simply slid out of a can onto a plate, cranberries are still all the rage on Turkey Day.

Dessert

Pumpkin Custard

First Thanksgiving: Dessert

Pumpkin Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Apple Pie

Modern Thanksgiving: Dessert

Since there was no flour or butter, pies were off the table. But with the abundance of pumpkins, the first Thanksgivingers made a custard with milk, honey, and spices inside of a hollowed-out pumpkin and roasted the sweet concoction over ashes from the fire. It is clear to see the direct connection between the original Thanksgiving dessert and the custard-like pies we enjoy today. The only question we have is, “Pumpkin or sweet potato?” And the only answer, of course, is, “Both, please.”

We hope you enjoyed the post and maybe even learned a little something.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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