The Thanksgiving menu we know and love today is not as old as you might think. In fact, you probably wouldn't recognize the original meal the Pilgrims ate back in the 17th century.
For as long as we can remember, the quintessential dishes at a Thanksgiving dinner table—the food that makes Thanksgiving, well, Thanksgiving—have included turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkins. Corn and mini marshmallows, too. Without any of these elements, there would be no Thanksgiving dinner, right?
But what if we told you that practically none of these dishes were actually present at the very first Thanksgiving in America. That's right, the 17th century event that launched one of the most iconic American holidays would have been nearly unrecognizable to any person alive today, not only for its dark background, but because of its food. So, what did the Pilgrims actually eat during the first-ever Thanksgiving dinner?
A bit of context
The circumstances for colonists in and around Plymouth, Massachusetts, were really different from what we're used to back in 1621. So, it's no surprise that they needed to make do with was actually available at the time.
For one, the event took place in September, right after the harvest season, instead of its contemporary date. It took over two hundred years, in fact, for the holiday to be moved all the way to November.
As a matter of fact, the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests were celebrating not a tradition, but the simple fact that they were alive and would be so come winter, since their crops were plentiful and had yielded enough that year to get them through the snowy season. As such, the celebration was not merely one night of dining, but an entire three days of festivity. That alone is a notable difference from today's holiday.
On the menu
According to historians, most of the customary Thanksgiving dishes we know and love today weren't served until after 1700. By a simple (or not so simple) process of elimination, scholars can more or less tell us what was—and what most definitely wasn't—on the menu during that fateful event.
For instance, we most certainly know that no potatoes of any kind would have made it to the 1621 table. Corn may have been on the menu, but at this time of year it would have probably been already dry, so it's unlikely.
Although records from back then do talk about the presence of "fowl," it's more probable that the Pilgrims served roast duck or goose than wild turkey at that point. And as strange as it would seem to us, records also mention varied seafood, such as bass, lobster, cod, oysters, mussels and other assorted clams.
Thanks to the plentiful forests nearby, we can also expect walnuts and chestnuts to have made an appearance, alongside carrots, squash, and peas from the recent harvest. Local fruits such as grapes, melons, and plums were also likely present, as were several kinds of English crops—including turnips and cabbage.
The traps of history
When many of us think about our traditions, there's a feeling of security and stability in imagining them as eternal, or at least millennial: unchanged throughout the centuries and full of the meaning of our particular nation or culture. That's one of the traps of history: everything changes, and for any one tradition to come into being, a long historical process often took place to settle it.
That's true for Christmas, Halloween, and pretty much any other traditional holiday we can think of—and it's certainly true for Thanksgiving. As much as we'd like to think that there's always been an essential feature for what it means to be American, it's important to keep in mind that, in fact, most of what we are has no ancient anchor at all. We're just making it up as we go along.
But that's fine: we still get a delicious meal out of it, after all.
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