History buffs, we understand your Thanksgiving meal plan is already set. But next year, you may wish to mix it up and make your meal more historically accurate.

So don’t forget the mussels cooked in beer.

Four hundred years ago, the bounty of seafood in Cape Cod Bay and nearby rivers would help feed the new hungry arrivals in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  

Our traditional Thanksgiving array of turkey and buttery high-carb sides came centuries later. The original meal sounds far healthier, if you ask me.  

What the First Colonists Ate

To match what the colonists and the Wampanoag most likely ate at harvest time in Plymouth in 1621, you could be serving passenger pigeon (challenging, as they are extinct), swan, eels, and lobster, clams, and mussels along with some other kind of smoked fish, historians say (Gambino, 2011).

At the museum celebrating the Plymouth settlement, the regularly sold-out historically accurate “New England Harvest Feast” includes “Mussels Seeth'd with Parsley and Beer” as a first course, and “Fricassee of Fish” as a second, alongside turkey, corn pudding, stewed pumpkin and pork (Plimoth Plantation, N.D.).

Full-length statue of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit.
Full-length statue of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, from US Library of Congress.

Deer was also on the 1621 menu, a gift from the Wampanoag described in a letter from Edward Winslow, a guest:  “…many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”

The same letter refers to local “fowl.” In the 1620s, passenger pigeons darkened the skies, and a single blast of buckshot could bag 200 at a time. Birds were stuffed with chunks of onion and herbs or chestnuts—not bread.

Cookbooks, descriptions of gardens, and archaeological remains provide other clues. The sides in the original meal would have been drawn from the staples that fed the Wampanoag, who ate chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts from the forest, multi-colored Indian corn, green beans, pumpkins, and squashes.

They helped the colonists plant gardens, which are later described as containing turnips, carrots, garlic, and pumpkins. White potatoes (from South America) and sweet potatoes (from the Caribbean) hadn’t made it north, and cranberry sauce didn’t appear for another half-century.

The All-Important River

The Town Brook, the colony’s main source of freshwater, enticed the first settlers. The Mayflower first landed in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, which didn’t supply enough fresh water for these British to make an essential: beer.

When they rounded the tip of the cape and sailed across, they spied the brook on the mainland. It met a salt marsh suitable for anchoring boats. Not far away was—you guessed it—a big rock.   

Silvery river herring swam upstream in Town Brook. Squanto, the famous guide, taught the newcomers to layer dead herring as fertilizer with their corn seed, producing the multi-colored crop (Tucker, 2010).  

The brook also supplied eels and waterfowl that flocked to a pond they called Billington Sea. Squanto taught the new arrivals how to trample eels out of the mud (Tucker, 2010).

The Woman Who Invented Thanksgiving

So how did we get to today’s feast full of land-locked dishes? As you sit down to your family’s celebration, virtual or otherwise, your history lesson by rights should include the woman who started it all.

Sarah Josepha Hale
Portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale by W.H. Chambers. US Library of Congress. Hale is also the author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, petitioned presidents for more than 30 years to establish a harvest holiday. In 1863, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday to unite a country divided by the Civil War.

Hale put recipes and menus for her pet holiday in her magazine and many cookbooks, establishing traditions like sage dressing and creamed onions. Mashed potato, still new to American palates, appeared, too.

By the 1880s, exotic macaroni had arrived on Victorian Thanksgiving tables. However, that macaroni and cheese dish - unlike the soul food favorite once called “macaroni pie,” (Twitty, 2016) - included tomato, and was more like what we’d call lasagna (Ryan, 2012).

Which just shows that Thanksgiving meals aren’t set forever, but evolve as part of our cultural history. Which suggests one way to celebrate American freedom is to voluntarily “devolve” and get closer to the historic original. If not mussels, perhaps your family would go for lobster bisque? A bit of herring in honor of the all-important fertilizer? Eel from your local Korean market? The sky’s the limit…though I wouldn’t try cooking a swan.

Sources:

Gambino M. What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-was-on-the-menu-at-the-first-thanksgiving-511554/. Published November 21, 2011.

Plimoth Plantation. Thanksgiving and 17th-Century Themed Dining | Plimoth Plantation. https://www.plimoth.org/plan-your-visit/shop-dine/themed-dining/thanksgiving-dining. Accessed November 10, 2020.

Ryan, Owen. Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883 https://forgottennewengland.com/2012/11/11/macaroni-and-cheese-for-thanksgiving-thanksgiving-dinner-in-1883/#:~:text=If%20you%20were%20to%20sit,called%20for%20macaroni%20and%20cheese. Published November 11, 2012.

Tucker A. The Waterway That Brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-waterway-that-brought-the-pilgrims-to-plymouth-72874478/. Published November 22, 2010.

Twitty M. The roots of black Thanksgiving: Why mac and cheese and potato salad are so popular. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/mac-and-cheese-potato-salad-and-history-the-roots-of-black-thanksgiving/2016/11/17/f9eff0d8-a866-11e6-8fc0-7be8f848c492_story.html. Published November 17, 2016.