There are basically three approaches to devising a Thanksgiving menu.
In the first, the foods are typical of New England where the first thanksgiving was celebrated some 250 years before it became a national holiday with a capital “T” in the mid-19th century.
In the second, families follow local and regional traditions. Or, if they are first- and second- generation immigrant families without a familiarity of traditional American Thanksgiving foods, they add avocado salad, curry or lasagna to the menu.
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In the third, which no one I know uses other than the historically re-created village denizens of Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, cooks attempt the authentic 1621 menu.
The hardest part of the last approach is that no actual menu exists. We are left with just some cursory description from two sources supplemented with comparative studies of what we know American Indians and Englishmen ate in the 17th century.
At the center of the 1621 table was probably roast venison and a variety of water fowl. There were no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce and no pumpkin pies, although there were probably dried cranberries and pumpkins in some form. There was probably maize in the form of bread, griddle cakes or porridge.
Pilgrims’ harvest celebration
We know this from the two and only surviving documents from the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. The sources are the English leader Edward Winslow’s “A Letter Sent From New England,” “A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and Gov. William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.”
Winslow wrote to a friend that the governor (Bradford) had sent “four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The hunters brought back enough food to feed the colony for a week along with “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 they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” Bradford adds that “besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys” venison and Indian corn.
As far as all the other food the colonists and Wampoanoag ate, culinary historians only have educated guesses based on a number of secondary sources including archeological remains such as pollen samples. The Wampanoag ate wildfowl, deer, eels, lobster, clams, mussels, smoked fish, and forest foods such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, and they grew flint corn, the multicolored Indian corn suitable only for being ground into flour and never eaten off the cob. They also had pumpkin and squashes, sunchokes and water lily. We can surmise that those foods were on the table. The Indians had taught the colonists how to plant native crops, which they did in March of 1620, but the things grown are only known from a later time, namely turnips, carrots, onions, and garlic.
In 1621, the sweet potato and the white potato had not yet arrived in New England, so they were not found on the Pilgrims’ harvest table that autumn. Later Plymouth writings mention eagle and crane begin eaten.
Winslow, in his letter to a friend, describes the foods available in Plymouth in 1621. “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors.”
He went on to describe plentiful strawberries, gooseberries and many varieties of plums. “These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us,” Winslow wrote
“Our Indian corn,” wrote Winslow, “even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meal as rice.” In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread were adapted for native corn.
In September and October, a variety of dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from Pilgrim gardens is likely to have included what were then called herbs: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as local cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts.
One dish that very well might have been on that harvest table of the fall of 1621 is “stewed pompion,” as it was called by the 17th-century English. One of the earliest written recipes from New England is found in a book by the English traveler John Josselyn who first went to New England in 1638 and whose book “Two Voyages to New England” was published in 1674. He called it a “standing dish,” suggesting that it was an everyday dish. The adapted recipe you can make is based on his original description where he says “it will look like bak’d Apples.”
Stewed Pompions (Stewed Pumpkins)
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) pumpkin flesh, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 teaspoons apple 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.
Main photo: Pumpkins for Thanksgiving. Credit: Scott Hirko/iStock