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Discovering Thanksgiving: Separating Fact from Fiction

The romanticized image of pilgrims gathered around the table set with an oversized turkey and pumpkin pie is how we define Thanksgiving. In reality, venison along with lobsters and scrawny wild turkeys are the elements of Plymouth's 1621 feast.

"Visitors to Plimoth Plantation are often surprised when we don’t look like a Hallmark card, dressed in big hats and with buckle shoes," said Kathleen Wall, who oversees Plimoth Plantation’s colonial foodways programs. "They’re also surprised to learn that the 1621 Thanksgiving doesn’t resemble the holiday that’s celebrated today."

In 1621, Thanksgiving was a harvest festival in the early fall, probably October. It celebrated the economics of having enough to eat, a serious concern for the settlers who nearly starved to death during their first year. Plimoth's harvest festival never was a day of thanksgiving; a day of thanksgiving was a religious day of prayer and fasting.

Another historical fact that seems to upset visitors is that Thanksgiving was broken tradition, meaning Plimoth didn't celebrate the harvest as an annual event. 

"Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in November for us here," said Wall. "That’s because in our 1627 interpretation, we didn’t celebrate the harvest because it wasn’t held that year."

It’s difficult to separate fact from romanticized folklore because historians don’t know much about that first Thanksgiving aside from a few written sentences.

“We do know the harvest festival lasted three days and was attended by 90 native people and 50 colonists. The centerpiece meat of the feast was deer; five deer were brought as gifts to the colony," Wall said. "We can assume there was maize, beans and squash, along with lobsters, clams, roasted ducks, geese and turkey, which could have been served with an onion sauce that was stewed with breadcrumbs."

Any hunter today knows the pilgrim’s turkey didn’t look anything like those big breasted birds served today. New England wild turkeys then and now are downright scrawny which, according to early 17th century culinary practices, often times were boiled or baked into pies (think turkey pot pie). Cranberries would more likely be found folded into a stuffing for meat than sugared and cooked into a relish because sugar was expensive and in short supply.

Missing from the 1621 menu? Whipped potatoes, apple pies and candied sweet potatoes. None of these crops had yet to be established. And the pumpkin pie we relish topped with whipped cream wasn’t a staple on the menu until the mid-1800s. Instead, pumpkin was stewed or baked in its shell.

“We do have a 1653 recipe for a pumpkin pie that calls for a dozen eggs and that resembles more of a frittata than what we would think of as traditional pumpkin pie.”

The 17th century English table was draped with a linen tablecloth. It was a major faux pas to eat off bare wood. Spoons and knives were the eating utensils. When the saltcellar and bread were placed on the table, it signaled the beginning of the meal. When they were removed, the meal was officially over.

Each year, Plimoth recreates both a Pilgrim Thanksgiving and a Victorian Thanksgiving for guests to experience. The 1621 Harvest Feast is featured at the Plantation during October and November. The 1863 Victorian Thanksgiving transports guests back to the time of Lincoln, who officially proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. The 1863 menu features the traditional items of oysters, roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish and pumpkin pie.

What makes eating Thanksgiving dinner memorable at the Plimoth Plantation is the location itself. While too late to travel to Plimoth this year, one can still add a historical touch to your own Thanksgivng menu.

Stewed Pumpkin or Spinach Salad are recipes from Plimoth Plantation and include the original 17th century recipe text and spellings, along with the updated version. Both recipes are featured in Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrim to Pumpkin Pie, by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation.

Stewed Pumpkin

To stew pompions:

"The Housewives manner is to slice [the Pompions] when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Fleash": John Josselyn, New England Rarities Discovered 1672

  • 4 cups cooked and mashed pumpkin or other squash
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1-2 teaspoons ground ginger (or any combination of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Place the pumpkin, butter, vinegar, ginger, and salt in a saucepan over low heat.  Stir and heat until all of the ingredients are well combined and hot.  Adjust the seasonings to your liking and serve. Serves 8

Spinach Salad

An excellent boiled Sallet.

"To make an excellent compound boild Sallat: take of Spinage well washt, two or three handfuls, And put it into faire water, and boile it till it bee exceeding soft, and tender as pap: then put it into a Cullander and draine the water from it, which done, with the backside of your Chopping knife chop it, and bruise it as small as may be: then put it into a Pipkin with a good lump of sweete butter, and boile it over againe: then take a good handful of Currants cleane washt, and put to it, and stirre them well together; then put to as much Vinegar as will make it reasonable tart, and then with Sugar season it according to the taste of the Master of the house, and so serve it upon sippets."  -   Gervase Markham, The English Huswife 1623

  • 3 pounds fresh spinach, washed, stemmed and chopped (do not dry)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup dried currants or raisins
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar or red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 tablespoons sugar
  • Salt to taste

Pile the washed spinach in a large pot over medium heat, moving it about until it is wilted and the considerably reduced in volume, 3 to 5 minutes.  Press the spinach against the side of the pot, then drain off any excess water from the bottom, and add the butter, currants, vinegar, sugar, and salt.  Continue cooking briefly, tossing the spinach to coat it with the sauce.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl to serve.  Serves 6.

See related article: Thanksgiving Leftover Strategy

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