Question: Which Thanksgiving food are you most curious to try?
The “traditional” Thanksgiving meal of turkey and “all the trimmings” is a modern-day evolution from a very different buffet the guests at the first gratitude celebration enjoyed in 1621.
According to a new book, Menus That Made History by Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson, that recounts the offerings served at various famous meals and establishments, the inaugural Thanksgiving feast most likely consisted of this menu of foods, which were plentiful and commonplace in New England at the time:
- Corn porridge
- Corn bread
- Pumpkin mash
- Sweet potatoes
As you can see, more than a few of today’s staples are conspicuously missing. For starters, while sweet potatoes were likely served, mashed potatoes were definitely not on the menu, as potatoes hadn’t even made their way to North America yet. They were common in South America and a rare delicacy in Europe, but it wasn’t until much later that they arrived here.
The more likely starch was corn, which at the time was typically stripped from the cob and pounded into a thick porridge and into corn meal that was used to make corn bread.
Pumpkins grew in the region, so its rich filling was likely pounded into a mash (lots of mushy foods make an appearance here!), but, as the book points out, the Pilgrims couldn’t have baked a pie because they didn’t have butter, wheat, sugar, or an oven to bake it.
While cranberries did grow in North America, the Pilgrims didn’t have cranberry relish either—remember, no sugar. It would be another 50 years before anyone recorded boiling cranberries with sugar to make the traditional side dish we enjoy today.
As for all the seafood they likely ate at that first celebratory meal, it’s likely that those dishes aren’t part of the mainstream Thanksgiving table because it’s impossible to get fresh seafood in much of the United States. As the book points out, “The foods that remain at the heart of the feast are those that the whole country can get access to.”