Back in 2015, some experts had decided to take the historical route through Thanksgiving and its original culinary scope. Yes, we are talking about the very same banquet that was apparently celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, with the lore dating back to at least 1621 AD.
Now since we are talking about history, most researchers believe that the banquet was started quite by accident when the Pilgrims were shooting their guns in celebration of their new harvest in September (as opposed to November). Startled by the gun-fire sounds and bound by their recent treaty of mutual protection, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his chosen warriors rushed forth to the Plymouth Colony. On arriving, they surprisingly discovered that the villagers were reveling, but were seemingly a bit short on food. And on being invited to the ‘party’, Massasoit may have commanded his personal hunters to bring back five deer specimens to the settler table (this conjecture is put forth by Tim Turner, guest experience manager at Plimoth Plantation).
Simply put, this gesture of goodwill might have accounted for venison (roasted or stewed) – meat that was usually reserved for special occasions among the Wampanoag. Another extant letter from the period, written by the English leader Edward Winslow, says how the settlers also went ‘fowling’ or hunting for game, like geese, swans, passenger pigeons, and possibly even turkeys. These bird specimens were gathered to last more than a week. Furthermore, the village was probably supplied by varieties of fish, including cod, eels, shellfish, mussels, and clams.
On the vegetable side of affairs, the settlers must have taken advantage of their recent harvest that entailed healthy helpings of squash, accompanied by parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, beans and leeks grown in the gardens. The pumpkins were probably prepared by being stewed with a combination of vinegar, spices, and butter. The villagers also boasted other assorted food items like wild chestnuts, walnuts, and even grapes.
Now while all of these surely amounted to quite a hearty fare, the Pilgrims distinctively missed out on conventional bread due to unavailability of wheat flour. Instead, they might have relied on flat-breads made of corn. And the Thanksgiving enthusiast inside you might have also concluded that were no servings of pumpkin pies, cranberry sauces, and mashed potatoes. So this brings us to the ultimate question – what about drinks? Well, in short, the answer is – no liquor was probably served at the table because the Pilgrims didn’t know how to make wine, while it was too early to brew beer from their barley store.
Lastly, beyond just the variety of the food available to the participants, it is interesting to note how some of these items were a novelty to the different cultures involved in the banquet. For example, the Pilgrims (may) never have had tasted venison before the event, while the turnips and parsnips were completely alien to the Wampanoag. Furthermore, we should also shed some light on the cutlery involved in the celebrations for the potential Thanksgiving purists. To that end, it should be noted that forks were conspicuously absent from the tables since they were not even invented in the 17th century. As a result, the parties had to make do with spoons, knives and of course their ever trusty hands.
Book Reference: Bradford’s History of ‘Plimoth Plantation’