Remember all of those history book accounts of the first Thanksgiving? But if you think the precedent-setting first feast featured turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and candied yams at that harvest time meal, you may want to think again. Items such as waterfowl, wild fowl (yes, there were probably turkeys), venison, chestnuts, shellfish, possibly porridge made from corn (sometimes sweetened with molasses, if available), and wild fruits graced that first table, where pilgrims and Wampanoag broke proverbial bread.
According to food historians, two surviving documents reference the maiden meal but only in broad strokes. Though turkey again was likely present, experts believe the focus was more on goose or duck, but that swan and pigeons may have fit the poultry bill (puns withstanding) as well.
It is speculated that small birds were spit-roasted and large birds were first boiled and then spit-roasted for flavor. If stuffed at all, experts say it would have been with onion and herbs or maybe shelled chestnuts–not bread or bread products as we favor today. Eels, lobster, clams, bass, oysters, and mussels were abundant along the New England coast and would have found their place at the harvest table. Preserving by drying or smoking fish was also a popular practice, so fish in this form may have also been present.
White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean had not yet made their way to North America in 1621, so the coveted side dishes were likely not even a twinkle in a cook’s eye, though bountiful pumpkins and squash were there in some form. Various accounts of the era note culinary practices included hollowing out a pumpkin and filling the shell with milk, honey, and spices to make custard, then roasting everything in hot ashes.
While cranberries may have been plentiful, the concept of cranberry sauce and its sugary component was generations into the future, so a 17th century sweet tooth was not satisfied in that way. However indigenous plums, blueberries, grapes, gooseberries, and raspberries grew (and some continue to grow!) wild in the New England region, and what was in season very likely helped fill the table and certainly rumbling stomachs.
If you’re looking to make history with this year’s holiday meal, these recipes based on foods from the first Thanksgiving may give you the opportunity to do just that. While clearly not replicating recipes and procedures of old – or olde! – as they do not exist en toto (besides, not many of us still cook with hot ash), the basic ingredients and flavors are there. M-m-m-m-m-m-m!
Pumpkin Shell Custard
1 pumpkin, 5-7 lbs.
6 whole eggs
2 cups heavy cream or milk
1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
2 tablespoons butter
Whipped cream, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut lid off pumpkin and scoop out seeds. Mix remaining ingredients except butter and pour in pumpkin. Top with butter. Place lid back on pumpkin and place in a baking pan. Bake for 1 to 1½ hours or until mixture has set like a custard. To serve, remove top and scoop out some of the pumpkin with the custard. Serve with whipped cream if desired.