Thanksgiving as we know it took many years to develop, evolving from a very occasional celebration into a noted event in 1863 with President Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation. Lincoln invited citizens "in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." (It didn't, however, become an official US holiday until 1941.)
But come late November, we're not thinking about Honest Abe. Our minds wander back to 1621, and the celebratory dinner between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. After an arduous journey on the Mayflower, and a harsh winter where only half of the original voyagers survived, the next year brought an impressive corn harvest, and the settlers invited their Wampanoag friends to join them for a three-day celebration (one of the few examples of harmony between settlers and Native Americans). Unfortunately, there is no record of the exact menu, but through journals and historians, we've got a good idea of what the feast likely consisted of.
Get ready, because many of our beloved and traditional favorites weren't present back in 1621. Most of what we know about that first feast came from "Mourt's Relation" -- journal entries chronicling those first settlers. Supplies were very low after that first year in North America, and since these Pilgrims had no ovens, there were no tables overflowing with pies and baked goods. Potatoes were still a questionable food source (they were originally thought to be poisonous), so there was no pile of steaming mashed taters covered in melting butter. But forget all that -- there weren't even turkeys!
As "Mourt's Relation" reveals, four settlers went "fowling," likely for ducks and geese, while the Wampanoag attendees came bearing five deer, or venison. Though there were no potatoes to pair with the meat, it's likely these settlers enjoyed cabbage, onions, and of course corn, which inspired the celebration and was likely turned into "samp" -- a porridge. The Pilgrims also enjoyed a lot of squash -- especially pumpkin, which became an essential ingredient in early American cooking, often roasted whole with honey and sweet additions as a dessert which could be enjoyed before extra supplies allowed them to delve into the world of pies once again.
As the settlers adapted to the area, they also grew accustomed to the area's abundant seafood. Oyster stuffing might not have been known to them at the time, but they did dig eels out of their beds from September through the winter, and feasted on mussels, and even oysters brought in by their Indian friends. And while there were no pies, Spring fruits offered the Pilgrims a myriad of sweet treats, so it's likely they preserved some dried fruits for the colder months.
All in all, chances are you don't want to celebrate just as the Pilgrims did. There were no crisp turkeys, mounds of stuffing, and dollops of potatoes. There was no overflowing source of dairy and international spices to season and flavor. But if you're looking to be a little more authentic and change things up this year, you can't go wrong with some duck, venison, and a nice selection of squash and corn.
Check out the slideshow above for our favorite recipes from ingredients likely at the first Thanksgiving!