What food was served at the original Thanksgiving celebration?
Plucked from his own time in the autumn of 1621 and deposited at a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner today, a Plymouth, Mass. Pilgrim would have gawked at the foodstuffs, says UW-Madison historian Stanley Schultz.
“He would not have recognized mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, bread stuffing of any composition, green beans (alone or in some noxious casserole), corn on the cob, candied yams or sweet potatoes, pumpkin or apple pie for dessert,” Schultz says. “If the meal’s centerpiece was a crown roast of pork or a spiral cut ham, our traveler would stand bewildered because his fellow Pilgrims did not keep pigs.”
What, then, did the approximately 50 English settlers, who for three days entertained and feasted with about 90 regional Wampanoag Indians, eat during the celebration? We only know for certain that the celebrants dined on venison provided by the Indians and wild fowl (probably either duck or turkey). Other available foodstuffs included some form of dried maize—”Indian corn” to the Pilgrims—lobsters, oysters, eels, squash, beans (similar to lima beans), strawberries, raspberries, and gooseberries (probably dried) as sweets. “We only can speculate whether the feast included these items,” he says.
What is not speculative, Schultz says, is that today we celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November because of Abraham Lincoln. In October, 1863, the President proclaimed a national holiday on which all Americans, bitterly divided by the Civil War, could give thanks with one heart and voice for all that was strong and productive about their nation.
“Sound advice then, and today as well,” adds Schultz.