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What the Pilgrims Really Ate

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What the Pilgrims Really Ate

For most Americans, the “traditional” Thanksgiving feast includes turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, and a few vegetables. The whole meal may last an hour or two.

However, many of the foods we associate with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner actually weren’t available for the first feast, which stretched for three days.

So what foods were served at the first Thanksgiving?

  • Turkey, of course, was served (and has been the main entrée for almost 400 years). However, it was wild, not domestic, that the Pilgrims and Indians consumed. They also ate venison from the five deer that the Indians brought to the celebration, as well as duck and geese.
  • Fish. Cod and bass were also served, and it’s very likely that shellfish appeared on the first Thanksgiving table because it was a common food of the day.
  • Bread, especially sourdough bread, which the Pilgrims called “Cheate Bread.” Cornbread was made from hominy.
  • Corn. The early corn was known as flint corn (pictured), which was raised by the Indians and roasted. It’s not a sweet corn or a popping corn. Flint corn is a variant of maize, the same species as common corn but the kernels can be different colors on the same cob. Each kernel has a hard outer layer to protect the soft inside, so it likened to being “hard as flint.”
  • Vegetables. The few vegetables that were served were boiled onions and spinach and stewed pumpkin. Onions were peeled, quartered, and boiled with raisins, sugar, egg, and vinegar. Spinach was also boiled. It was then drained and served with currants, butter, sugar, and vinegar.
  • Dessert?
    • Prune tart seasoned with rosemary, rosewater, and cinnamon and sweetened with sugar.
    • Pumpkin pie wasn’t served in a pastry shell. Instead, pumpkins were diced and stewed, then seasoned with ginger, cinnamon, butter, and vinegar to make it tart.

So how did the Indians and Pilgrims eat all this food? Not with a fork, which hadn’t debuted yet on the dining room table. Guests sliced off their own portions of meat with a knife. Spoons, wood plates, bowls, and large linen napkins were used. Napkins were also used as hot pads to handle hot meats during the early days of Plymouth.

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What there wasn’t:

  • There was no cranberry sauce because sugar was in low supply.
  • Breads were generally baked in round loaves instead of in loaf pans.
  • Apples and pears weren’t growing in this region at the time and certainly weren’t on hand to make into pies or sauce.
  • Mashed potatoes weren’t prepared by the Pilgrims since potatoes weren’t yet grown in their gardens.


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