We imagine the first Thanksgiving, in November 1621, as a groaning table filled with all the foods we love, but that feast and the one we look forward to today have little in common.
At that hyper-local celebratory meal between Puritans and Native Americans, turkey — the wild kind — may have been served. What’s more likely was a meal of fish, lobster and oysters. There wasn’t pumpkin pie, but pumpkin of some kind probably held pride of place along with beans, carrots, cabbage, corn in the form of porridge and cranberries. There were likely no potatoes, mashed or otherwise, because they didn’t become popular until years later.
We often forget the first Thanksgiving was a religious holiday — giving thanks to the Pilgrims’ Christian god for the abundance of the first year’s harvest in the New World. Plentiful food was the reason for the day, but eating wasn’t the point — a fact that seems almost sacrilegious today, with that we consider the high holiday of feasting.
Evolution of a holiday
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In the more than 300 years until Thanksgiving was officially declared the secular national holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, similar religious days of giving thanks occurred, including five during the Revolutionary War and two during George Washington’s presidency. These days weren’t always in November, but they largely featured farm-to-table bounty, and just like at that first Thanksgiving, the foods served weren’t always what we associate with Thanksgiving today.
It’s a pretty good bet that a well-laid table was somehow an important part of thanksgiving days because other religious observances – think Christmas and Easter — were culinarily well appointed.
What might some of those early Thanksgiving meals have looked like? By the 18th century, when Washington made his proclamations, turkey was common on American tables and particularly useful for serving a lot of people. Because meals in the 1700s were served in multiple courses, one was dedicated to the “roast” — when the turkey would have appeared — especially during fall or early winter celebrations when meat was plentiful. To make the meal particularly special, a fresh roast of beef might have been prepared, because cow butchering usually happened in the fall. On the other hand, a wild or domestic turkey could be procured at any time of year.
“As far as food went, this was the time of year for lots of meat,” said Frank Clark, the master cook and supervisor of historic foodways at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Wild fowl and hog butchering provided the options for many meat pies and roasts.”
One of the roasts demonstrated at Colonial Williamsburg is a forced Stew of Beef that modern Thanksgiving diners who don’t care for turkey might prefer. “Forcing” was the 19th-century word for “stuffing” and was a common technique for meats, fish and even vegetables.
Early Thanksgiving meals: Eating local
Those feasts of the past would also have included plenty of seasonal vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash and beans. These local foods would have been creatively prepared with expensive ingredients in wealthy households like those of the founding fathers or the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, where Clark and his staff do cooking re-enactments. In more modest homes, corn, a staple ingredient, might be used as cornmeal in a simple “hoecake” or, in more well-to-do homes, whipped into an Indian Pudding, reminiscent of cornbread stuffing. Treats like sweet potato pie or green bean casserole (Ragoo of French Green Beans) would have been easily recognizable to modern Thanksgiving feasters.
So, too, would cranberry sauce, which had replaced the whole cranberries of the first Thanksgiving by 1796, when Amelia Simmons penned “American Cookery,” arguably the first best-selling American cookbook. In it she writes that cranberries prepared by being “stewed, strained and sweetened” made a good sauce for stuffed turkey.
After feasting, our early American forebears would have been particularly good at using leftovers because growing and making food wasn’t exactly easy. In fact, it was an all-day, everyday job for most. Leftover turkey, for example, would have made its way into a pie or croquette, as in the Chicken Surprise recipe below.
Either because of delectable food or simple piety, days of thanksgiving continued and were popular among early leaders. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams approved of thanksgiving days and issued several proclamations of their own.
Despite being the first foodie, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t keen on thanksgiving, believing such days smacked of religious influence upon government. So the practice ended until Abraham Lincoln revived Thanksgiving during the Civil War as a November holiday when Americans could put aside political differences. It continued to be informally practiced until World War II, when the holiday was formally proclaimed — much to the joy of eaters everywhere.
But one has to wonder: If Jefferson, who was famous for his gustatory pursuits, had realized the feasting potential that came with Thanksgiving, would he have changed his mind?
The following recipes are reprinted courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg.
A Nice Indian Pudding (Corn Pudding)
1 pint milk (or cream, if you want a richer pudding)
10 ounces cornmeal
1 1/2 ounces butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or less, to taste)
1 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (or less, to taste)
1 1/2 teaspoon cloves (or less, to taste)
3 ounces raisins
3 ounces sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons cream
1. Heat milk over medium heat. Remove it from burner and slowly add the cornmeal, stirring slowly with a whisk. Once blended, return to the burner and cook until fairly thick.
2. Remove from heat and add melted butter, spices, raisins and sugar, then blend together.
3. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs well, add the cream and whisk until incorporated with the eggs.
4. Add the eggs to the cornmeal mixture and blend thoroughly with a spoon.
5. Pour the mixture into a greased 9-inch pie plate.
6. Bake in a 360 F oven for 30 minutes or more. To check for doneness, stick a knife blade in. If it comes out clean, it is done.
To Stew A Rump of Beef (Stuffed Beef Rump)
For the forecemeat (stuffing):
1 pound bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 medium onion
1 ounce beef suet (or butter as a substitute)
4 slices of bacon
2 egg yolks
For the beef:
5-pound rump of beef
2 quarts water (or enough to cover meat)
1 pint red wine (Burgundy is fine)
4 cloves garlic
4 small carrots, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 medium turnip, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 medium or large stalk of celery, cut in 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 tablespoon flour
Horseradish to taste
1. Prepare the forcemeat: In a bowl, mix the bread crumbs, then add salt and pepper. Chop the onion finely and add to the crumbs.
2. Cut the suet and bacon pieces very fine and add into the mixture.
3. Whip up the egg yolks and add them in, blending with your hands thoroughly until it packs together like a thick stuffing. If it’s too dry and doesn’t come together, add a whole whipped egg to the mixture.
4. Prepare the beef: Take the beef, and starting at one end with a knife, about an inch from the bottom, slowly slice from one end almost to the other end. Pulling the top over gently, cut as you go to “unroll” the beef, making it a long flat piece.
5. Place the forcemeat on the beef. Flatten it with your hand to cover the exposed top of the long strip of meat.
6. Gently roll the beef back up, reversing your cutting procedure. You should have a piece of meat that looks somewhat like a pinwheel. Tie it together with string to hold it tight.
7. Place beef in a stewing pot. Cover it over with the water and wine and add in your cut up garlic, carrots, turnip and celery. Stew this gently until sufficiently done, or when the meat has reached an internal temperature of 160 F to 165 F when taken with a meat thermometer. Skim the fat that rises to the top of the water.
8. To garnish, if you choose, roll out a puff pastry sheet (store bought), cut what shapes you please, and bake them on a cookie sheet. Plate the beef and surround it with vegetables. If you choose, place scraped horseradish on the top and your baked puff pastry shapes over or around before serving.
9. To make gravy from the pan drippings, mix butter and flour — about 1 tablespoon each, more or less depending on the amount of drippings — together to form a paste. Roll the mixture into pea-sized balls. Add the balls to the pan with the drippings one piece at a time, whisking gently until the mixture comes together and is velvety.
Chicken (or Turkey) Surprise
2 to 4 thin slices of Virginia ham, Canadian bacon or regular ham cut into 2-inch rounds
5 cups stuffing mix
1 cup cooked and shredded chicken (or turkey) breast
6 to 7 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon butter, rolled in flour
Fine bread crumbs as needed
Gravy with the juice of half a lemon and butter added (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 325 F and lightly coat a cookie sheet with vegetable spray.
2. Cut ham slices into 2-inch rounds using a cookie or biscuit cutter and place on cookie sheet.
3. Prepare stuffing mixture. Make sure that if you use raisins, nuts, celery, etc., in your stuffing that these items are minced very finely. This will make the molding of your stuffing into a container much easier.
4. Shred the cooked chicken breast into thin pieces using a knife or your fingers. Place it into a saucepan and add the cream and butter rolled in flour. Cook over low heat until butter has melted and mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
5. Using a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper for easy cleanup and a a 2-inch biscuit cutter as a mold, put a 2-inch slice of ham at the bottom and build up the sides with your prepared stuffing to a height of 2 inches.
6. Once all containers are made, make a depression in each patty and fill it with cooled chicken mixture to the top of each container.
7. To create lids, take some of the remaining stuffing and flatten in a round form large enough to cover over the top and place carefully on the top of your filled stuffing container.
8. Beat the egg yolk with 1/2 teaspoon of water. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the sides and the lid of the container. Sprinkle fine bread crumbs lightly on top.
9. Bake for 45 minutes or until the container is lightly golden in color. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before carefully removing from cookie sheet with a broad, flat spatula.
Optional: Pour warmed gravy (either homemade or bottled), to which you have added the juice of half a lemon and a teaspoon of butter, over top of the stuffing containers before serving.