Turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, corn, cranberries and pumpkin pie – the great American Thanksgiving feast is based on New England fall harvests. Do you think that is what the pilgrims and Native American Indians ate at their first Thanksgiving feast? Did they have pumpkin pie?
What Did the Pilgrim Eat?
Edward Winslow, one of the founders of the Plymouth colony, befriended the American native Wampanoag and won the friendship of their chief, Massasoit. Their neighbors taught them how to plant maize (multicolored ‘Indian’ corn) and fish the streams for bass, perch, trout and catfish. They learned to harvest honey and find edible nuts and berries from the forests. The ocean yielded fresh lobster, clams, cod and other shellfish.
The colonists brought seeds from England which produced varieties of squash, pumpkin, wheat, barley, oats and peas. Women grew herbs and vegetables, like parsley, lettuce, spinach, carrots and turnips in their gardens. Pigs, chickens, goats, and later, sheep and cows brought with the colonists provided meat, eggs and dairy products. Foods like spices, salt, sugar, oil and vinegar, had to be imported from England once a year and had to be rationed accordingly. Their lives depended on a good harvest and they ate as the crops allowed.
By the third year in the new land, everything was producing well. In the fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford wrote, “all being well and recovered in health and strength, they had all things in good plenty.” After their first corn crop was successful, the governor decided a celebration was in order to thank God for His extravagant blessings. Their Indian neighbors, the Wampanoag, were invited to join their surviving group of 53 for a time of feasting, a tradition the American natives already observed.
First Thanksgiving Feast
Chief Massasoit arrived at the feast of 1621 with 90 other American natives bearing gifts of five deer. Though the exact menu is not known, we do know they had fresh venison and possibly turkey and duck or geese. Winslow wrote in his journal that the governor sent four men on a “fowling” mission. “Besides waterfowl there were many wild turkeys, of which they took many,” he recorded. The men killed enough birds to feed the company for a week, and it did. Their banquet lasted from three to five days!
Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation says, “the feasters likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, carrots, and peas.” But, did they eat pumpkin pie for dessert?
Pumpkin Pie for Dessert?
They did not have ovens for baking and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of 1621. However, they had been taught how to tap the maple trees for sweet syrup, which became their staple sweetener for many foods as well as any honey that could be found. Their friends showed them how to fix a dish called “pompion”, which was stewed pumpkin. They sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds and strings, and filled the insides with milk and honey. The pumpkin was then put in the hot ashes to bake. They may not have eaten a real pumpkin pie, but they had the pumpkin pudding without the crust!
Winslow wrote in his journal, “And God be praised we had a good increase… that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about – rejoicing and eating together, and being able to thank God for it all?
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: S.E. Morison, ed. Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p 90