The first Thanks­giv­ing menu: veni­son and ... pas­sen­ger pi­geons?

The Review - - OBITUARIES - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Roxbor­ough, tweets @ SCEEMike and can be reached at [email protected] schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

As we gather with fam­ily for Thanks­giv­ing feasts this week, with the tur­key typ­i­cally at the cen­ter of the feast and — for those with clas­sic Amer­i­can tastes any­way — sur­rounded by mashed pota­toes, stuff­ing, gravy, can­died yams, cran­berry sauce, pump­kin pie and more, let’s pause for a short his­tory les­son that an­swers a ques­tion his­to­ri­ans have been ar­gu­ing about for decades:

Just what did the Pil­grims eat that first Thanks­giv­ing back in 1621? The an­swer might sur­prise you.

Re­mem­ber, the first Thanks­giv­ing was a cel­e­bra­tion of one year of the Pil­grims sur­viv­ing the for­eign New World land­scape of eastern Mas­sachusetts, plus a cel­e­bra­tion of their first har­vest, and the Wam­panoag In­di­ans gra­ciously shared the feast with them — over three very long days.

So first, what they didn’t eat those days: mashed pota­toes, can­died yams, pump­kin pie and cran­berry sauce. Since white pota­toes orig­i­nated in South Amer­ica and their close cousin the sweet potato is Caribbean in ori­gin, nei­ther had yet spread to North Amer­ica, and both would have been ab­sent in 1621. Pump­kins are Amer­i­can fruit, and the Wam­panoag likely taught the Pil­grims how to roast them in the fire, fil­ing their in­sides with other veg­eta­bles, but there was no pump­kin pie; The Pil­grims lacked flour and but­ter, so no pie.

And while cran­ber­ries are a key crop in Mas­sachusetts even to­day and the Pil­grims were sur­rounded by them, the recipe for cran­berry sauce is more than 50 years in the fu­ture, and the Pil­grims lacked a key in­gre­di­ent here, too — sugar was in­cred­i­bly scarce. So they ate dried or raw cran­ber­ries.

With­out cran­berry sauce, yams and mashed pota­toes, Kath­leen Wall, his­to­rian and food culi­nar­ian at the Plimoth Plan­ta­tion, told Smith­so­nian mag­a­zine in 2011, “That is a blank in the ta­ble, for an English eye. So what are they putting on in­stead? I think meat, meat and more meat.”

So tur­keys, right? While wild tur­keys are, de­spite their name, a dis­tinctly Amer­i­can bird — Ben Franklin fa­mously thought it would be a bet­ter na­tional sym­bol than the ea­gle — and while tur­keys cer­tainly in­hab­ited the area where Pil­grims dined with their Wam­panoag guests, tur­keys were likely not on the ta­ble that first Thanks­giv­ing, as there are re­li­able di­aries and eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the event at the time, with mention of lots of foods but no mention of tur­key.

We know veni­son was one huge com­po­nent of the first Thanks­giv­ing. In fact, records show Wam­panoag hunters brought five deer to the feast, their con­tri­bu­tion to the cel­e­bra­tion.

“Wild­fowl was there,” con­tin­ued Wall, and she sus­pects goose or duck were at the cen­ter of the ta­ble — though she also dis­cov­ered in her re­search that swan and pas­sen­ger pi­geons would have been avail­able, too. “Pas­sen­ger pi­geons — ex­tinct in the wild for over a cen­tury now — were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quar­ter-hour be­fore you saw them,” she told the mag­a­zine. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

And some of the birds were boiled first, then fin­ished in the fire. Boiled pas­sen­ger pi­geon? Yikes. In ad­di­tion to wild­fowl and deer, the group prob­a­bly feasted on eels and shell­fish like lob­ster, clams and mus­sels, all sta­ples of the coastal Wam­panoag.

“They were dry­ing shell­fish and smok­ing other sorts of fish,” says Wall.

Wait, so lob­ster may have been present at the first Thanks­giv­ing?! (Per­haps we be­gin a new tra­di­tion?)

Wall thinks it is pos­si­ble the birds were stuffed, just not with the same bread as to­day. In­stead, the Pil­grims stuffed the geese with onion and herbs, and “there is a won­der­ful stuff­ing for goose in the 17th-cen­tury that is just shelled chest­nuts,” says Wall. There was bread present but made from maize and not wheat. Multi-col­ored In­dian corn was a sta­ple, ground not only for bread but for por­ridge, too.

Like all eastern wood­lands peo­ple, the Wam­panoag had a “var­ied and ex­tremely good diet,” says Wall. The for­est pro­vided chest­nuts, wal­nuts and beech­nuts, and those would have been in­cor­po­rated into that 1621 feast.

Of course, the mod­ern Thanks­giv­ing feast fea­tures too many desserts — I’m look­ing for­ward to our friend’s an­nual pecan-and-choco­late derby pie. But the 1621 feast con­tained nei­ther pies nor cakes; mel­ons and grapes, avail­able and sea­sonal, likely would have fin­ished the meal.

And to wash it down? Wall thinks they sim­ply drank wa­ter; beer and wine was not there.

The tur­key-cen­tric meal is more a prod­uct of the 19th cen­tury than the 17th, but the first event did fea­ture two very dif­fer­ent peo­ple speak­ing very dif­fer­ent lan­guages shar­ing food and cre­at­ing com­mu­nity— not a bad model for the day that evolves into Thanks­giv­ing.

Happy Thanks­giv­ing, Roxbor­ough.

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