Giving thanks and digging in. The Thanksgiving celebrations we have today certainly resemble the spirit of those enjoyed by colonists and Indians, but, when it comes to menus and etiquette, theyíre courses apart.
Though no one knows exactly what foods were eaten at the first harvest feast, an autumn meal shared by the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the Wampanoag Indians, historians believe two items were definitely on the menu: venison and wild fowl. And just how do they know this? Primary sources such as Edward Winslowís description of the ďFirst Thanksgiving in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1621Ē tells how both the venison and fowl were hunted and then brought to the table. Due to the lack of vegetables available, meats and fowl were the center of the meal, which may have included items such as seal.
Many of our modern Turkey Day staples likely never made the table of the original harvest feast. Pigs, for example, had been brought over from England, but there is no evidence that they were butchered making it unlikely that ham was served. Other unlikely items include sweet potatoes and potatoes. Corn on the cob was also not served because it was kept dried at this time of year. And our favorite sweet side, cranberry sauce? Due to a lack of sugar, it didnít make an appearance either.
The presence of other modern musts at the 1621 feast, including pumpkin pie, chicken/eggs and milk, is in question as well. Though many of our Thanksgiving dinners are finished off with a classic pumpkin pie, a recipe from the colonists has not been found although recipes for stewed pumpkins have been discovered. While we know that hens were brought over from England, it is unknown how many were left at this point or whether the hens were still laying. As for cows, none had been sent over on the Mayflower, but it is possible that early settlers used goat milk to make cheese.
So what was on the menu? Along with meat and fowl, seafood (cod, eel, clams and lobster), grains (wheat flour and Indian corn), nuts (walnuts, chestnuts and acorns), fruits (plums, and grapes) and some vegetables (peas, beans, onions, lettuce, radishes and carrots) made up a quite balanced feast.
When it came to manners, seventeenth-century folk dined a little differently than we do today. Forks were not on the dinner table so they used spoons, knives and their hands to eat. The napkins were for wiping hands and mouth and also for picking up food. As for spicing up their plates, the use of salt was common, but pepper served solely as a cooking spice and didnít appear on the table.
While we may simply fill our plate to our heartís desire nowadays, a person's social status was the barometer of what he or she ate centuries ago. The higher their standing, the nicer the foods placed near them.
Though we follow our main courses with sweets, the Pilgrims didn't waste a moment getting to the good stuff. All the foods for the meal were placed on the table at the same time.
Whatever tops your table this Thanksgiving, keep in mind why itís there: to enjoy lifeís bounty while celebrating the presence of family and friends. Itís a holiday spirit thatís centuries old.