November 2009
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1st Thanksgiving Menu Debate Continues: No Pumpkin Pie?


It never fails. Every Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house eventually leads to a discussion of what the official foods of a "real" thanksgiving are. I mean, we always end up playfully arguing about whether or not the pilgrims ate chicken & dressing, or green bean casserole...or was it really deer meat (venison) and partridge (quail)? When you really stop and think about it for a second, it does become a little puzzling.

I did a bit of research and found several scholarly articles concerning the history of Thanksgiving. The results were a bit surprising to me! For one thing, the feast between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 wasn’t the only celebration to have occurred amongst the early pilgrim settlers in this land! Historians have recorded other ceremonies of thankfulness among other early European settlers, too! An earlier "thanksgiving," in December 1619, was held at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, by a group of British colonists to give thanks and prayer to God for their healthy arrival after a long voyage across the sea. I guess they didn’t have turkey and pumpkin pie, huh?

The Native American Indians, including the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and many other groups, had harvest festivals and ceremonial dances to celebrate thanks for many centuries before the Europeans came over with their pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce. Speaking of that, the question now arises – what foods were on the table at that much-noted three-day feast in 1621? Not many of us were there to see; but there are at least two written records historians use for clues.

Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in December of 1621 in which he described the feast and specifically named fowl, deer and "the fruits of our labors." Twenty years later, William Bradford’s book gave us a few more hints. There is much we still don’t know, like did they actually have wild turkey? Or were the fowl actually ducks and geese (or swans, eagles, etc.)? Maybe there was a variety since it takes a lot of food to feed 150 people!

Here’s a synopsis of what historians think MAY have been on the menu: seafood, like cod, eel, clams and lobster; wild fowl (as mentioned above), along with venison and seal. Seal?!? There is much disagreement over the Indian corn (likely it wasn’t fresh, anyway); but most agree there could’ve been radishes, carrots, onions, beans, peas, plums, grapes, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, dried currants, etc.

Because we don’t know about their remaining supply of sugar, it is doubted the pilgrims had cranberry sauce at this time. We also do not know if the supply of pigs had held out or not either; but I’m betting it did. One last shocker – scholars tell us a recipe for pumpkin pie didn’t come along for 50 more years! But, the pilgrims regularly had stewed pumpkin. No pumpkin pie? There must be some mistake.

Has this information changed my view of a proper Thanksgiving meal? Nah. But it has made me even more ready for it! I can hardly wait!

Jerry A. Chenault is with the Urban R.E.A., New & Nontraditional Programs.