Friday, November 23, 2018

So What Did the First Pilgrims Really Eat?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Yesterday, after eating my fill of turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, yams, and pumpkin and fruit pies, I started to wonder what the Pilgrims ate for their first Thanksgiving here in the New World.

This article from Smithsonian magazine is the most trustworthy source on the subject that I was able to find upon short notice.  The writer of the article talked to Kathleen Wall, foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about the available foods for the original feast.

It turns out that the biggest likely source of food in 1621 was game birds--wild turkeys certainly, but probably also geese, ducks, swans, and possibly passenger pigeons (which were not yet extinct, of course).   Birds may have been stuffed, but probably with onions, not with bread.  Deer were also plentiful, and the settlers' early accounts indicate that the Indians killed some for the feast.

More protein would likely have also come from seafood--lobsters, clams, and shellfish, which are still Massachusetts delicacies today.

What about starch?  The Smithsonian article quotes William Bradford, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony (the government that the Pilgrims built) as saying that, in the autumn of 1621, "Besides [waterfowl and other meats], they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion."  Indian corn is what modern Americans simply call corn and what the rest of the world refers to as maize.  Wild nuts, such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, added variety and possibly also were used for stuffings. 

In that first year, the Pilgrims had no wheat (so no pies, savory or sweet, were made), no potatoes (a New World crop from South America and the Caribbean that had yet to come to North America), and no cranberry sauce (cranberries were present but it took at least 50 years for the settlers to learn how to turn them into cranberry sauce). Only later would the Pilgrims (who were not farmers or particularly knowledgeable about wilderness survival) learn from the Indians they met how to plant various vegetable crops, including turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, and pumpkins.  Our ideas of proper Thanksgiving food came from the mid-19th century. That was when the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was first adopted; by that time, all of Thanksgiving's "traditional" foods had become pretty common in the U.S.

The lesson here?  People feast on what foods they can find to feast upon.  Enjoy your holiday meal, however different it may be from "traditional" fare.

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