New England Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving

While no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild—but not domestic—turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.
Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s attendees almost certainly got their fill of meat. Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.

Fruits indigenous to the region included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and, of course cranberries, which Native Americans ate and used as a natural dye. The Pilgrims might have been familiar with cranberries by the first Thanksgiving, but they wouldn’t have made sauces and relishes with the tart orbs. That’s because the sacks of sugar that traveled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower were nearly or fully depleted by November 1621. Cooks didn’t begin boiling cranberries with sugar and using the mixture as an accompaniment for meats until about 50 years later.

Culinary historians believe that much of the Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, which is often absent from today’s menus. Mussels in particular were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams and oysters might also have been part of the feast.

Whether mashed or roasted, white or sweet, potatoes had no place at the first Thanksgiving. After encountering it in its native South America, the Spanish began introducing the potato to Europeans around 1570. But by the time the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower, the tuber had neither doubled back to North America nor become popular enough with the English to hitch a ride. New England’s native inhabitants are known to have eaten other plant roots such as Indian turnips and groundnuts, which they may or may not have brought to the party.

Both the Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe ate pumpkins and other squashes indigenous to New England—possibly even during the harvest festival—but the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking. According to some accounts, early English settlers in North America improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes.

Tribal Thanksgiving
- legends and recipes
by Ron Skaar

Three great Indian nations, the Incas of Peru, the Mayans of Central America and the Aztecs of Mexico had refined agriculture long before the Europeans arrived. Wild plants and grasses were cultivated into corn, potatoes, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, tapioca, fruits and (thank the gods) cocoa. The Incas excelled at farming while creating some of our most important food plants.

When Columbus discovered America he uncovered this treasure trove of new food resources. Native people had been fishing off the New England coast as long ago as 3,000 B.C. While many North American tribes were primarily hunters, other tribes like the Iroquois, had well-tended fields. Southwestern Native American tribes had long been farming corn, beans and squash using an early system of irrigation. Across the land, Native Americans were harvesting up to 100 different crops. 

Indians from Chili to Canada were growing many varieties of beans, including kidney, navy, limas and the scarlet runner. In northeastern Montana the dried beans were cooked by adding hot rocks to the pot by the native “stone boilers”. Further south the Hopi would burn plant species and use the ashes to color foods, such as cornbreads. Rich in essential minerals, these “culinary ashes” added more than just decoration.

The Northwest Native Americans developed an elaborate nonagricultural society, relying on the rich resources of the area for centuries. Potlatch, the Chinook Indian word for “gift” is a feasting ceremony, where in the past the meal consisted of salmon, along with clams, mussels, wild greens and berries. The goal of this ceremony was to use up as much of the hosts bounty as possible. Enjoy it all now, for you could be the master of ceremonies next year

Many tribes summered in New England, where they enjoyed huge feasts of lobsters, oysters and steamed clams. Indians around the Gulf of Mexico searched for oysters in great canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. When the canoes returned, baskets of oysters were spread on fires which had been prepared in their absence. The Southern tribes impressed the newly arriving Spanish soldiers with the great oyster bake. But the newcomers thought it was foolish to damage so many pearls with the smoke and heat.

The natives helped the European colonists learn how to harvest these crops, plus hunt and fish. Our immigrant’s lives were entwined with the traditions of the Native Americans, who had inhabited these abundant lands for centuries. The colonists incorporated all this new bounty into their lives and their cuisine that we enjoy to this day.

Other foods the Indians gave us include strawberries, first cultivated by the tribes of New England and now farmed in all fifty states. North American Indians gathered-up about 15 different kinds of berries, including blueberry, cranberry, raspberry and blackberry, to eat fresh or dry for the winter. Wild plums and wild cherries were a part of their diet. They enjoyed nuts everywhere, often subsisting on them when other foods were scarce.

Algonquians produced maple syrup for a food source and drank the solution as an energy building medicine. Along the shores of the Great Lakes, wild rice has been a basic Indian food for hundreds of years. In honor of “National American Indian Heritage Month” the following recipe for a creamy wild rice soup, incorporating left-over turkey, is included.

New England Style Turkey

•           1 12- to 14-pound turkey
•           2 ¼ cups kosher salt, more as needed
•           1 cup white sugar
•           3 bay leaves
•           1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked, more as needed
•           3 sprigs each fresh rosemary, thyme and sage
•           1 large yellow onion, peeled and quartered
•           2 ribs of celery, roughly chopped
•           2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

1.         Rinse turkey under cold water and place on a rack in its roasting pan while you make the brine.
2.         For the brine, combine salt, sugar, bay leaves, pepper and herbs with 2 1/2 gallons water in a pot or cooler large enough to hold turkey comfortably. Stir until salt and sugar dissolve. Put turkey in brine and refrigerate or ice overnight, at least 12 hours.
3.         When ready to cook, heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove bird from brine, drain well and pat very dry with paper towels. Discard brine. Set turkey, breast side up, on a roasting rack set into a large roasting pan. Season with salt and pepper, then fill the cavity with onion, celery and carrots. Fold wings under the bird and tie its legs together with butcher’s twine. Roast for 30 minutes.
4.         Reduce heat to 350 degrees and roast approximately 3 hours more, basting bird every 30 minutes with drippings and tenting it with foil if skin is turning too dark, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh without touching bone registers 165 degrees. Transfer to a cutting board or platter and allow to rest at least 30 minutes before carving.