In this two-part post about the traditions surrounding Thanksgiving, we’ll take a look at the past and present in honor of one of America’s greatest holidays; a holiday that is so closely aligned with food that just imagining a Thanksgiving meal without a turkey, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, cranberries and stuffing would be, well, lacking in traditions for many American families.
But do you really want to serve your family a traditional and authentic Thanksgiving meal? Probably not and here’s why. According to most historians, we can truly identify only a few food items that were on the original menu in 1621 when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag feasted in Plymouth Colony.
According to Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, “Wildfowl was there. Corn, in grain form for bread or for porridge, was there. Venison was there. These are absolutes.” However, as Wall has written, wildfowl doesn’t necessarily mean it was turkey, or in this case, wild turkey. During this decade of the 1600s, it was far more likely that wildfowl was either duck, goose, or get this, swan or passenger pigeons. Somehow, we don’t think your family would find the authenticity of serving passenger pigeons as being a tradition they’d care to observe. But, take heart, the passenger pigeon has been extinct for over 100 years.
How do we know this? Well, Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended the event, wrote home in a letter, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors… 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.” This is one of the only surviving documents that refer to the original Thanksgiving dinner.
In our next post, Do you really want to serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Maybe not?: The Second Helping, we’ll take a look at how and when the more traditional Thanksgiving meal took shape.