Our harvest was gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together.
— Edward Winslow
Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is so full of fond memories for me. For example, I remember my Mom always prepared two different kinds of dressings — bread for my older brother and cornbread for me.
Not being a fan of turkey, I always ate more of the other dishes on the menu especially sweet potatoes with a marshmallow topping.
Then too, how could I forget my Mom’s chiffon pumpkin pie . . . light, airy and very delicious.
Looking back — a WAY back — our Thanksgiving Day feast is a lot different than that of the pilgrim’s “harvest” celebration in the autumn of 1621.
Not much is known about their meal then, as we have only two firsthand accounts of the three day event observed by the fifty-three pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts. The first, that of former colony Governor Edward Winslow, was recorded in his “A Letter Sent from New England; A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” and tells what they did not serve. He wrote that the barley they had sown that spring was “an in different” crop and that the peas which they had planted late in the season were “not worthy of gathering.”
The second record, written by Governor William Bradford, and entitled “Of ‘Plymouth’ Plantation;” cited their consuming cod, bass and other fish, “waterfoule” — swan, geese, and ducks — which were stuffed with onions, herbs, and sometimes oats.
Although “turkie” was abundant, it was not the centerpiece of the feast, as five Wampanoag hunters brought venison to the meal.
Being a multi-day celebration of their first successful harvest and knowing that what the colonists had raised that summer had to last until spring, it can be assumed that much of the food was provided by the 90 nearby Wampanoag “Indeans.”
In fact, if cranberries were served they were provided by them. Other native dishes might have included: nasaump (similar to oatmeal), and consisting of dried “crone,” local berries and nuts, turkey stew (sobakeg) made with ground nuts, dried beans, hominy corn, turkey, green beans, winter squash, sunflower seeds, onions, and clam juice, and pompon (stewed pumpkin).
Other foodstuffs served included Jerusalem artichoke, sweet flag, Indiana turnip, water lily, ground nuts including beechnut, hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, collards, cabbage, carrots all seasoned with parsley, thyme, and sage.
Desserts included white and red grapes, gooseberries, three kinds of plums, and strawberries.
Pumpkin yes, pumpkin pie no. Pie was probably not on the menu due to the fact that they lacked wheat flour and the other ingredients. Likewise for sweet potatoes which had not yet been introduced into Europe, or mashed potatoes which was considered unfit for animals to eat at that time.
They ate with knives and spoons — forks were not in general use except by those in high positions.
Ed Myers is an Advanced Master Gardener and a past president of the Irvington Garden Club and Garfield Park Master Gardener Association. He is the Steward of Irvington’s Benton House Historic Garden and Kile Oak Habitat Gardens.