Feast Like the Pilgrims: 8 Recipes From the First Thanksgiving

thanksgiving-recipes-bannerThis is the year. The year that you’ve decided to have a truly traditional Thanksgiving feast, just like the pilgrims. You imagine the table set to perfection with a beautiful turkey in the middle, surrounded by traditional side dishes of potatoes, stuffing, rolls, and of course the cranberries.

It is basically a Norman Rockwell painting coming to life before your very eyes. The thing is, just about the only thing on your table that was also on the pilgrims table, is the turkey. For a historically accurate Thanksgiving dinner very few of those foods would appear on the table. So if you have your heart set on an authentically traditional Thanksgiving dinner let’s take a look back at the very first Thanksgiving on 1621.

Before the actual Thanksgiving celebration there was the journey to the new land. On the voyage the food was pretty bland as you would expect. The diet consisted primarily of food that wouldn’t spoil. Foods such as biscuit-like crackers, salt pork, dried meats, and oatmeal. The only fresh food at the time was fish. To wash all that down was the beer they had brought with them. Even children were permitted to drink the beer because water was usually contaminated; meanwhile the distillation process used in making beer, killed much of the bacteria in the ingredients.

Upon arrival the pilgrims were not well prepared for surviving the unfamiliar climate. Fortunately, with some help from the Wampanoag Native Americans the pilgrims were able to survive the winter and better prepare for the next one. To celebrate having enough supplies to make it through the winter they held a three day feast.

Can you imagine the prep for a three day feast? Or the sheer amount of food? Some of the food on a modern Thanksgiving table would be a surprise to the original participants. Mashed potatoes are now a Thanksgiving staple but in 1621 they had not yet made their way to the Americas. Potatoes are not indigenous to the area and the pilgrims didn’t bring them on their journey. They also had no sugar. Without sugar, today’s gelatinous cranberry salad would be off the menu. Cranberries were used with in conjunction with other berries to add flavor to the meats and oatmeal style puddings that were staples of their diet.

While they weren’t the best farmers, the pilgrims were excellent hunters. So the largest part of the menu was a variety of prepared meats. Ducks, geese, venison (deer meat), and yes the legendary turkey, were all present at the meal. They were served along with seafood that could easily be collected from the New England shores. Clams, mussels, lobster and even eel all made an appearance on the table. Berries such as cranberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, and plums would’ve been used to add flavor to the meats and seafood.

Believe it or not, recipe books were available at the time and made the journey to the new world. One of the most famous is Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, first published in 1615. A recipe for cooking turkey or chicken reads:

If you will boil chickens, young turkeys, peahens, or any house fowl daintily, you shall, after you have trimmed them, drawn them, trussed them, and washed them, fill their bellies as full of parsley as they can hold; then boil them with salt and water only till they be enough: then take a dish and put into it verjuice [the juice of sour crab-apples] and butter, and salt, and when the butter is melted, take the parsley out of the chicken’s bellies, and mince it very small, and put it to the verjuice and butter, and stir it well together; then lay in the chickens, and trim the dish with sippets [fried or toasted slices of bread], and so serve it forth.

Amazingly enough the recipe they used in 1621 was probably used as a starting point for some of the more complex recipes we use today. Some things never change, or only change a little.

Main Course

If you are interested in trying to create a traditional Thanksgiving meal circa 1621, we’ve gathered a few main dish recipes you can try out including, turkey stew still made by the Wampanoag, venison roast, and for the truly adventurous, baked eel!

Turkey Sobaheg

1/2 pound dry beans (white, red, brown or spotted kidney-shaped beans)
1/2 pound white hominy corn or yellow samp or coarse grits, available from Gonsalves or Goya at many grocery stores
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 course flour (or pounded walnuts)
Dried onion and/or garlic to taste
Clam juice or salt to taste (optional)

Combine dried beans, corn, turkey, seasonings 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 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 or nut flour, stirring until thoroughly blended.

Recipe Source: https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/recipes#pilgrim

Venison Roast

Venison roast

Rub the roast with salt and pepper, and place in a large roasting pan, roaster, or Dutch oven. Lay slices of fatty bacon on top of the meat, and bake at 325 degrees for a few hours or until it reaches your desired doneness.

Recipe Source: http://godecookery.com/trscript/trsct004.html

Baked Eel

One eel, skinned and slightly over one pound
1 tablespoon butter
2 small onions, chopped
Chop the eel into three-inch pieces, and season it with salt, pepper, and ginger. Put the pieces into a baking tin with the butter, onions, and raisins. Cover the tin and bake at 360 degrees for about 50 minutes.

Side Dishes

As far as side dishes go, they were mostly comprised of seasonal foods that could be harvested. Foods such as pumpkins, squash, peas, onions, beans and carrots were all served. A lot of these items would be made into a porridge style dish to accompany the meat or be eaten for breakfast. Indian corn was used in the making of cornbread and other types of bread. If you aren’t ready to fully commit to the idea of a 1621 Thanksgiving, try out some of these side dishes. You can dazzle your guests with stories of the recipes authenticity while serving a unique, yet tasty dish.

Curd Fritters

5 eggs
Curds (ricotta, cottage or other soft cheese)
Wheat or corn flour
Cooking oil or butter

Make a thin batter with the eggs and equal amounts of curds and flour. Season with salt. Heat a small amount of cooking oil in your frying pan. When the oil is hot, pour in the batter and tip the pan to make the batter spread very thin (that’s what “let it run as small as you can” in the recipe means). They should be like crepes. When brown on one side, use your knife to flip them over or slide them onto a plate and flip them over into the pan. Add more oil to the pan when needed. Serve with sugar sprinkled on the top if you wish.

Recipe Source: https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/recipes#pilgrim

Stewed Pumpkin

4 cups of 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.

Recipe Source: https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/recipes#pilgrim


2 cups cornmeal
1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ¾ cup buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients. Stir in the buttermilk until thoroughly mixed. Pour the batter into a buttered 7” x 11” x 2” dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. [From The Good Land: Native Americans and Early Colonial Foods by Patricia Mitchell, 1992]

Indian Pudding

2 cups milk
2 cups light cream
2 tablespoons stone ground yellow cornmeal
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
A pinch of ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, beaten

In a large pan, heat the milk and cream until near boiling point. Gradually add the yellow cornmeal and bring it to a boil, stirring briskly. Stir in sugar, maple syrup, butter, and all the other dry ingredients. Let the mixture cool slightly. Beat in the eggs and pour the batter into a buttered 1 ½ quart baking dish, and bake at 325 degrees for 2 hours.

Recipe Source: http://www.theheartofnewengland.com/food-Hasty-Pudding.html

Nasaump (thick Native American porridge)

1 ½ cups cornmeal
1 cup berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, or a combination of all three)
½ cup crushed nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, or a combination of all three)
1 quart water
Maple syrup to taste
Combine the cornmeal, berries, crushed nuts, and maple syrup in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.

Recipe Source: http://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/recipes

Whether you are cooking up a truly traditional Thanksgiving dinner or a more modern Thanksgiving dinner we wish you warm memories and good cooking. If you do decide to try any of these recipes let us know how they turned out in the comments below!


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