The aroma of turkey roasting in the oven along with stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie lures us to the kitchen every Thanksgiving. However, this traditional meal has evolved since the first historic dinner. According to the pilgrim writer, Edward Winslow, crustaceans and mollusks were an important part of that first feast.
Europeans ventured through North America and established settlements since the 1500s. Friendly and hostile interaction with indigenous people occurred from the beginning. The holiday we celebrate today goes back to an event between the English setters who landed in Plymouth in 1620 and wanted to give thanks sometime in the fall of 1621 for their first abundant harvest and the assistance of their neighbors.
The little documentation we have tells of a three-day celebration between 90 Wampanoag indigenous people and about 50 English settlers. The food was prepared by the only four women (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White) who survived the Mayflower voyage and first year in the New World. Young daughters and male and female servants likely assisted the women.
In addition to crustaceans, mollusks, and fish, one account states that the settlers hunted for fowl for the celebration. They returned with turkeys, venison, ducks, geese, and swans. Herbs, onions, and nuts were added to the meat before roasting.
Local vegetables likely included onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and carrots. Corn was ground, boiled, and pounded into a thick porridge that may have been sweetened with molasses. Neither white nor sweet potatoes were yet available in the area.
Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries. The pilgrim’s sugar supply was depleted by then, so no sugared cranberry sauce reached their table that year.
The settlers also lacked butter and wheat flour to make pie crust. That prevented pie or bread stuffing from being on the menu. Nor did they have ovens for baking. Some accounts do say that early English settlers in North America roasted pumpkins by filling the shells with milk, honey, and spices and baked the pumpkins in hot ashes.
Although the holiday did, and continues to center on food, the occasion was to show gratitude. This year has been a tough one for so many, but we likely have things to be thankful for, none-the-less. It’s a good idea to take a few moments this week to recognize our gifts and give thanks.
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