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What's for Dinner, Myles Standish?

The History of the First Thanksgiving Feast

Your family is gathered around the table, the bird is looking golden and delicious and the table is practically groaning under the weight of the various delicacies and delights. As traditional as our Thanksgiving celebrations may seem, the menu was a bit different for that first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620 but their first winter was devastating and by the fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 people who sailed on the Mayflower. However, the harvest that following year was a bountiful one and the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast. They invited the Native American Indians who had helped them survive their first year to a feast that lasted three days. Instead of what we consider traditional Thanksgiving foods, the feast included wild ducks, geese, venison, eel, fish, boiled pumpkin, berries and dried fruits. It is not certain that wild turkey was a part of their feast since the pilgrims used the word ?turkey? to mean any sort of wild fowl.

However, this first Thanksgiving feast was not repeated the following year. In fact, it wasn?t until June of 1676 that the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts proclaimed another Day of Thanksgiving to express thanks for seeing their community securely established. However, much like the original Thanksgiving in 1620, this day was also not repeated and it wasn?t until October 1777 that all 13 colonies joined in a Thanksgiving celebration. Unfortunately, once again, this was a one-time affair.

In fact, until 1863 Thanksgiving Day had not been celebrated annually since the first feast in 1621. It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize today as Thanksgiving. She encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to establish the last Thursday in November (a date Lincoln may have correlated with the November 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod) as a day for national thanksgiving and prayer, hence, Thanksgiving Day.

Since then, each president has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941).

Foods Most Likely On The First Thanksgiving Menu

Seafood: Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster
Wild Fowl: Wild Turkey, Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagles
Meat: Venison, Seal
Grain: Wheat Flour, Indian corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots
Fruit: Plums, Grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, Chestnuts, Acorns
Herbs and Seasonings: Olive Oil, Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips

Traditional Favorites Not Found at the First Thanksgiving

Although we can?t imagine a Thanksgiving without many of these tasty treats, they were not enjoyed by the Pilgrims at their Thanksgiving Feast:

Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common. In fact, some Europeans feared that potatoes were poisonous.
Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that existed at that point in time, though the Pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it is unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying eggs.
Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it's possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.

Source: Kathleen Curtin, Food Historian at Plymouth Plantation.

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