5 Foods That Were Actually There at the First Thanksgiving (And 5 That Were Definitely Not)

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and as the unofficial gateway to the Holiday season runs towards us, we look forward to long-held traditions. Every family does Thanksgiving differently, whether it’s as small as roasting or frying the turkey, or a completely different meal altogether, everyone puts their own spin on this holiday. The history of Thanksgiving is long, with George Washington proclaiming “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” after a congressional resolution on November 26th, to 1863 in the midst of the war when Lincoln made it a federal holiday saying America needed a day to give, “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens”. However, we officially owe it to FDR who, in 1941, signed into law an act making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and giving it the fourth Thursday in November. Regardless the legalities, Thanksgiving has long been celebrated as a way of giving thanks for the harvest and God. Sort of a last hurrah before the descent into winter. The first Thanksgiving was in 1621, when English Colonists and Native Americans sat down to a meal together. Few actual details are known about the feast, and differing accounts and interpretations cloud what may have happened. Despite this, we do know what they may have eaten on that day 398 years ago.


5 That Were There

1.) Goose or Duck

It is likely that colonists had some sort of waterfowl as the centerpiece for the meal, and while they probably did eat turkey, it probably wasn’t the main dish. Swans and pigeons may have also been options. These birds were typically roasted or boiled, and sometimes a combination of both. The birds could also be stuffed, though with nuts and herbs rather than bread.

2.) Fish and Shellfish

The early colonists had prime waterfront property right on the Atlantic, and it is ridiculous to assume that it didn’t play a large role in their diets. Eels, clams, lobsters, mussels and fish were key parts of the wild three-day celebration which we have come to know as the first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag natives also had a longstanding tradition of fishing, and using their aquatic resources. We can say, with confidence, that fish and shellfish were a notable, if not large, portion of the meal itself.

3.) American Fruits and Vegetables

Although the Columbian exchange had already happened, American foods were still quite new to the Colonists and had yet to become core staples. Though they had gardens, and the indigenous people helped them plant crops, the Colonists were struggling agriculturally. They preferred to grow cash crops, which cannot be eaten, over the vital, hearty American vegetables which they needed to survive. Walnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts, joined maize, beans, onions, garlic, carrots, pumpkins and other squashes at the table. According to historians and nutritionists, the native Wampanoags had an incredibly healthy and varied diet, unlike the English who were plagued by scurvy and disease.

4.) Maize Bread

There are no grains in the Americas, and once again despite the Columbian exchange, there were none in New England. The Wampanoags probably brought a grainy bread made of maize (not unlike cornbread) to the first Thanksgiving to supplement the meat and greens. The recipe for this bread has been lost to time, so historians don’t actually know what was in it, but we do know that it sat in every bread basket at the feast.

5.) Water

Because they had no grain, beer was scarce, and likely only reserved for the higher-ranking members of society, and no wine was available or could be made, so water was the drink of choice (or lack thereof). Colonists and Natives alike drank water, which was likely from some sort of stream and not purified. While this was a break from English tradition, it was probably along the lines of standard for the natives.


5 That Were Not

1.) No Sugar or Spice or Anything Nice

Herbs were the name of the flavor game in Colonial America c. 1600s. Although the European spice trade was in its heyday, the yet uncolonized North American coasts did not provide them with a market, and so colonists had no access to spices. It is likely they barely even had salt to flavor their food with. Despite this, Native Americans had been living a spice-free life for centuries and used herbs to give their food a new flavor dimension.

2.) No Pumpkin Pie (or apple pie, or pecan pie, or pie at all)

The early colonists had no sugar, as aforementioned, but they also did not have enough of the other ingredients necessary for a pie crust to make any sort of dessert along those lines. While the pumpkin pie is a hallmark of Thanksgiving, it had no place at the table in 1621. It’s place was probably filled by another type of maize bread or corn dish.

3.) No Potatoes

While potatoes are native to the Americas, they are typically found in South America, and despite having made their way across the ocean to Europe, had not yet found their place in the North. Colonists would have replaced these lacking carbs with some other form of bread, or thick soup.

4.) No Cranberry Sauce

While cranberries are indigenous to the Northeast, there are no recorded accounts of combining them with sugar to make a sauce until a few years after the first Thanksgiving. When the colonists first arrived on the American shoreline, they were introduced to a whole new host of flora and fauna, which they immediately began to test for consumption. Unfortunately, they hadn’t gotten around to cranberries by the time of this feast.

5.) No Stuffing

As previously mentioned, the colonists had no access to wheat with which to make a bread stuffing. Instead, they used nuts and herbs, of which there were plenty, to stuff their birds. It wouldn’t be until much later when wheat flour was easier to access that stuffing as we know it would become a mainstay on the Thanksgiving scene.