A History of Thanksgiving Food

Map of Plymoth Colony, shows location of the town Plymouth, founded in 1620

Last week many Americans partook in Thanksgiving eating food like turkey, stuffing, corn, mashed potatoes, green beans, bread, pumpkin pie, and maybe cranberry sauce. The first Thanksgiving, in 1621, took place to celebrate the Plymouth pilgrims’ first successful autumn harvest. It wasn’t made into a national holiday until 1800s, thanks to President Lincoln and the author of Mary had a Little Lamb Sara Josepha Hale. That’s almost two hundred years later!

There’s no official menu, but the pilgrims most likely had venison, waterfowl, fish, fruits, and vegetables. The venison was provided by the native Wampanoag tribe, who joined the pilgrims for the feast. There might have been turkey, but it certainly wasn’t domesticated. A plethora of wild turkeys lived in the area, so it is generally assumed it was included. The governor of Plymouth William Bradford mentions, “a great store of wild turkeys,” at the meal. He sent out a “fowling” mission in preparation for the feast. However, turkey was not the centerpiece like it is today. Goose, duck, or other water fowl were more likely to be the main course. They, like the other meats, where roasted over a spit or boiled. It was believed that there was a variety of fish served, since they lived so close to the ocean. The colonists occasionally served mussels with curds, a dairy product with a similar consistency to cottage cheese. Lobster, bass, clams, eels, and oysters might also have been part of the feast.

A photo of a modern thanksgiving table, since the paintings about the first thanksgiving are historically inaccurate.

There were plenty fruits and veggies at this first thanksgiving, since it was a harvest celebration. The pilgrims likely had vegetables like corn, onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, and peas. Corn, while plentiful, would have been served as a porridge. Fruits they could have eaten were blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries.  Cranberries would have been eaten raw, not in a relish like today. Some accounts say they did boil the berries in sugar, but others say by the time of the feast the sugar that had come over on the Mayflower had depleted. Jellied and canned cranberry sauce did not exist in the marketplace until 1941.

Two items that were definitely not included on the menu where potatoes and pumpkin pie. Potatoes and sweet potatoes had not made their way to the New World yet. While the pilgrims might have eaten pumpkins and squash, the fledgling colony lacked the butter and wheat flour necessary for making pie crust. Moreover, settlers hadn’t yet constructed an oven for baking. Pumpkin pie would not show up on tables until the holiday was reintroduced in the 1800s, and pumpkin pie is not even American—it’s British. The combination of sweet potatoes and marshmallows would not be a typical thanksgiving meal until 1917.

Most of the thanksgiving dishes that are popular today are thanks to Sara Josepha Hale, who petitioned 13 presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, the last of whom was Abraham Lincoln, who listened. She got her idea by reading a diary of Governor Bradford. Back then it was not even called Thanksgiving—it was called a harvest celebration. While Thanksgiving may have evolved over time, no one can deny it’s still tasty (except for the cranberry sauce).