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Revisiting the feast

Historians look for truth about first Thanksgiving

Plimoth Plantation staff portraying Lucretia Brewster and her father-in-law, William, prepare mussels and other food for a 17th-century-style meal. Plimoth Plantation staff portraying Lucretia Brewster and her father-in-law, William, prepare mussels and other food for a 17th-century-style meal. (Photos by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / November 17, 2011
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PLYMOUTH - What did they serve at the first Thanksgiving dinner?

One thing is certain: The feast shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag in autumn 1621 was nothing like the turkey dinner most American families enjoy today on the last Thursday of November.

There were no forks. No cranberry sauce. No potatoes. No apple pie. No pumpkin pie. Water was the beverage of choice, because there was not much else. Venison and fowl were the main items on the menu, and some of the dishes probably contained guts or innards, such as deer heart, liver, and lung.

And that momentous occasion popularly referred to as the “first Thanksgiving’’ was no afternoon meal finished in one sitting - it lasted three days.

“Three days of feasting - three days!’’ said Kathleen M. Wall, the Colonial foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, her eyes widening.

To this day, myths abound about the origins of the American holiday that we call Thanksgiving, and the Pilgrims 1621 harvest celebration. Historians at Plimoth Plantation say there’s a lot more to what really took place then between the Wampanoag and the English Colonists in early 17th-century Plymouth.

For a more realistic depiction of the 1621 celebration, said Wall, “We’ve got to put the guts back into Thanksgiving.’’

Acting as real-life history detectives, Plimoth Plantation staffers have conducted culinary experiments in re-created 17th-century kitchens in an attempt to figure out not only what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate, but also how they cooked and prepared food. In one such experiment, potters at Plimoth Plantation used fragments of a broken vessel found in an archeological dig to replicate a dripping pan that the Pilgrims presumably used when roasting meat in front of a fire.

The autumn feast of 1621 celebrated a successful fall harvest. Neither the Pilgrims nor the natives called it Thanksgiving.

One of the only eyewitness accounts of the event is a letter written by Edward Winslow, who states that the Colonists celebrated by entertaining Massasoit (the Wampanoag leader) and 90 of his men for three days. Winslow wrote that they feasted on five deer and a lot of fowl (he doesn’t specify what kind).

“There’s so many fowl to choose from, it’s really hard to say,’’ said Wall. They might have eaten ducks, geese, swans, wild turkeys, quails, pigeons, or partridges. “Turkey is certainly on the list of possibilities,’’ she said.

When preparing the deer, the first dishes to be served would most likely have contained internal organs (heart, lung, liver, etc.) because those parts of the animal typically need to be cooked right away, according to Wall. She said the Colonists probably used them to make different types of sausage, such as blood pudding or livering (a type of sausage made from liver).

By the third day of the feast, meat and other leftover ingredients would have ended up in soups and stews. “You had a less pretty table on day three,’’ said Wall.

Alexandra Pocknett, a Wampanoag food historian at Plimoth Plantation, said the natives at that time could have made soups, stews, succotash (made of corn, beans, and squash) and mashes (one vegetable, all mashed up).

But besides venison and fowl, it’s not known for sure what else the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate during the harvest celebration. The feast took place sometime between late September and the first week of November. At that time in New England, there was plenty of seafood - lobster, clams, mussels, bass, eels - available, as well as corn, cranberries, grapes, nuts, and other fruits and vegetables.

The Pilgrims kept gardens where they grew edibles like carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, onions, radishes, and pumpkins. But there were no apples in New England at that time - apples are not native to North America. And butter was hard to come by, so baked pies weren’t likely on the menu.

The 1621 feast must have been an eye-opening experience for those involved, “a break from daily routine for everyone there,’’ said Wall. And it was also a time to celebrate the successful growing season.

“That must have been such a relief for the English . . . to know that they have a peck of meal a week for each man, which was a good ration,’’ said Wall.

A peck is a quarter of a bushel, which means each man could get about two-and-a-half pounds of corn meal per day, according to Wall.

“That’s a very generous portion. . . . That was a good time,’’ she said.

The fact that the celebration lasted three days only deepens the mystery as to what happened and how the English and the Wampanoag interacted with each other. The Pilgrims were vastly outnumbered by natives (there were at least 90 Wampanoag men and only about 50 Pilgrims), and despite the language barrier, somehow they got along.

Massasoit’s attendance and the Colonists’ hospitality can be viewed as acts of diplomacy. Both groups had just suffered devastating losses: Many of the original Mayflower passengers had died, and thousands of Wampanoag had perished from a plague between 1616 and 1618. The feast allowed the two groups to come together and evaluate each other’s potential as a partner or ally.

Many of the activities at the first celebration had to have centered around food and cooking. Wall said she imagines that both Pilgrims and natives were “preparing food, eyeing each other, washing up to cook more food, eat more food.’’

When it came to eating, Wall said, the English would have used linen napkins, spoons, knives, and, of course, their fingers. They didn’t use forks, she said.

Pocknett said the Wampanoag probably would have brought their own bowls and utensils. Both Wall and Pocknett said they believe that most of the dining took place outdoors, and that some of the English may have eaten indoors.

“The native people were mostly outdoors. . . . That’s where they spent most of the time and did their socializing,’’ said Pocknett, adding she believes there was most likely “lots of singing and dancing . . . and maybe games.’’

“You’d see Wampanoag playing football,’’ she said. “Our [Wampanoag] football games are pretty rough. There could be 45 on 45. There’s no limitation [to the number of players on each side].’’

The game was very physical, and played like a stripped-down version of modern American football, but without time limits and other restrictions. The rules were simple: Each team tried to score points by getting the ball past their opponent’s goal line at the opposite end of the field. Teams could field as many players as they wanted, and the games could last for hours. The natives would sport war paint while they battled - and tackled - each other for victory.

The Englishmen most probably just watched from the sidelines. The Colonists might have passed the time by conducting military exercises, marching around, and firing their muskets. They might have played stoolball, an old English sport that’s similar to cricket, played with a ball and bat. Or they might have held other athletic contests, such as log-tossing.

The Wampanoag probably shot their bows and arrows. They might have shared tobacco, and smoked it in pipes. The English loved their beer, but there was not much of it in the fledgling colony. They probably drank water, along with the natives.

The Wampanoag probably stayed two nights since they lived so far away (it took a day for them to get there). For those nights, the Wampanoag most likely camped out in temporary shelters made from pine boughs and cedar, and slept on mats and fur blankets.

Wall said there are many unanswered questions about the epic feast, which she describes as “three days of question marks.’’

“We have more questions than answers.’’

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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