What was the first Thanksgiving like?
Thanksgiving has been a tradition in my family for the last 388 years… really! I am a great grandson to William Bradford, one of the original American Pilgrims and Governor of the Plimoth Colony. Sounds pretty cool, right? You’re probably picturing my family party… dressed in ruffles, gold buckles on our hats trousers and shoes, out hunting the perfect turkey, digging up enormous sweet potatoes, and making the perfect pumpkin pie!
Sorry to break your heart but our family tradition has been quite modernized. In fact Grandpa Bradford probably didn’t eat a turkey, didn’t wear buckles, and hadn’t ever heard of pumpkin pie.
So what was the first Thanksgiving like?
Let’s start with the menu. Turkey is always the first thing that comes to mind. However, the first Thanksgiving might not have had turkey on the menu. Instead, protein in the form of geese, duck, crane, partridge, eagles, and swan were present!
If you’re serious about going traditional, don’t forget your cooked eel, lobster, cod or clams. Need more protein? Don’t look past the deer and seal. If that does not sound very appetizing not to worry! You can use liverwort, leeks, dried currants, olive oil and parsnips for a little seasoning. 🙂
Vegetables were likely on the menu including pumpkin (although no recipe for pie was around), peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes and black carrots; yep that’s right black carrots. Today’s orange carrots are an 18th-century hybrid. Representing the fruit group were plums and grapes.
As most of us know the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the harvest and included both Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. What we don’t typically know is that the meeting between the two was not an organized event. The best picture of the original feast is given by Edward Winslow from A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others.”
Hands, spoons used like a shovel, and knives were the only utensils available. Richard Pickering, deputy director of Massachusetts’ Plimoth Plantation, owns a 17th-century book of manners stating, “Save teeth picking for later and moderate your spitting. No smacking your lips like hogs. While sitting, do not move back and forth, lest your fellow diners think you are breaking wind.”
These are all fun facts about the great Thanksgiving tradition but if you decide to celebrate traditionally this year remember the underlying significance and the history of the event itself. The Pilgrims still found reason to celebrate even after more than half their colony dying, and a higher rate among the Native Americans.
Author A.J. Jacobs put it perfectly, “The 1621 revelers had undergone a mind-boggling amount of suffering. And yet there they were at the first Thanksgiving, sharing their harvest, running races, and overflowing with gratitude. If they could appreciate life amid such chaos, pain, and uncertainty, I could give thanks for all the good things in my relatively cushy life.”
What are your favorite Thanksgiving traditions? Share some of your favorites.