Saturday, November 19, 2011

Historic Thanksgiving Dinner

As Thanksgiving Day approaches, most of us are anticipating the roast turkey, family-recipe stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, sweet-tart cranberry sauce and cinnamon-spiced pumpkin pie that will adorn our dinner tables. Many of us also assume that these dishes are inspired by what the Pilgrims and Native Americans consumed when they first gathered centuries ago.
We’re wrong.

The first Thanksgiving feast was in 1621, and while there is no exact evidence of the actual date, it is thought to have taken place over the course of three days sometime between late September and early November.

A detailed description of the feast comes from a letter written by Edward Winslow to a friend in December, 1621. From his account, historians only know for certain that venison and fowl, which may have included wild turkey, were served at that first meal. However, they do have a good idea of what foods were available to the colonists at the time. These may have included:

·        Seafood: cod, eel, bass, clams, lobsters, mussels
·        Fowl: wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, eagles
·        Meat: venison
·        Grains: wheat flour, Indian corn, and barley
·        Vegetables: squashes (including pumpkin), peas, beans, onions, leeks, lettuce, radishes, carrots
·        Fruits: plums, grapes
·        Nuts: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns
·        Other: Olive oil (brought over with them), liverwort, watercress, sorrel, yarrow, maple syrup,  honey, and small amounts of butter, cheese and eggs

Some of our most popular Thanksgiving dishes would have never appeared on the 1621 table. Ham was probably off the menu; the Pilgrims did bring pigs over with them, but historians have found no evidence that any had been butchered.

Sweet potatoes and white potatoes were not a part of the meal since they were not yet common in New England. Also, scratch off cranberry sauce from the list. While the colonists did have cranberries, they didn’t have sugar.

What about that famous Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie? Sorry. While the colonists did eat stewed pumpkin sweetened with syrup or honey, pumpkin pie was not a recipe that existed at the time.

If you would like to add some historic Thanksgiving dishes to this year’s meal, here are a few Colonial-inspired recipes courtesy of the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts for you to try at home. The Stewed Pompion (the English word for squash), Onion Sauce for Roast Turkey, and Sobaheg (a Wampanoag stew great for leftover turkey) are modern versions of 1600s recipes. Each should bring the spirit of that first Thanksgiving to your own celebration.

Stewed Pompion
4 cups cooked (boiled, steamed or baked) squash, roughly mashed
3 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a saucepan over medium heat, stir and heat all the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve hot.

Onion Sauce for Roast Turkey
6 medium onions, sliced thinly
2 cups of water
2 teaspoons of coarsely ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (optional)
Follow your favorite recipe for roast turkey. Remove the turkey to a platter reserving the pan juices.
Place thinly sliced onions in a pot with water and salt. Bring to a boil over medium high heat and cook until the onions are tender but not mushy. A good deal of the water should have boiled away. Set aside for a moment.
Place the roasting pan over medium heat and stir to loosen any brown bits. Stir in the onion sauce, sugar, vinegar and breadcrumbs if desired. Add pepper to taste and adjust seasonings. To serve, pour over sliced turkey or serve alongside in a separate dish.

Sobaheg made with Turkey
1/2 pound dry beans (white, red, brown, or spotted kidney-shaped beans)
1/2 pound yellow samp or coarse grits
1 pound turkey meat (legs or breast, with bone and skin)
3 quarts cold water
1/4 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
1/2 pound winter squash, trimmed and cubed
1/2 cup raw sunflower seed meats, pounded to a coarse flour
Combine dried beans, corn, turkey, and water in a large pot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, turn down to a very low simmer, and cook for about 2 1/2 hours. Stir occasionally to be certain that the bottom is not sticking.
When dried beans are tender, but not mushy, break up turkey meat, removing skin and bones. Add green beans and squash, and simmer very gently until they are tender.
Add sunflower flour, stirring until thoroughly blended.

Please note: All photos are courtsey of the Plimoth Plantation.


  1. I love this, Linda. I've always been fascinated by colonial times, and the onion sauce sounds pretty good!

  2. I have also been intrigued by colonial your post! So interesting!
    Happy Thanksgiving!