history

What Did Pilgrims Eat At The Original 1621 Thanksgiving Dinner?

by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

We all know the traditional Thanksgiving menu by heart: You have your green beans, your cranberry sauce, your mashed potatoes, and your stuffing.

And at the center of it all is a big beautiful turkey roasted to perfection.

The whole meal is a warm and welcoming sight in the dark chill of late November, and it makes us think of spending time with family and friends.

But back in 1621, when the newly immigrated Puritans held the feast that would inspire today’s holiday, the meal would have been a little different. For example, no mini marshmallows!

The first Thanksgiving was held after the Puritans managed to eke out survival through a brutal Massachusetts winter and pull in a bountiful harvest the following autumn.

Feasts of Thanksgiving, as well as harvest celebrations, are common practices all over the world, and the Puritans didn’t set out to make this feast a holiday — they were just grateful to be alive.

Today, many families work hard to prepare a big meal for their guests, but compared to nearly 400 years ago, we have it very easy! Our menus would be considered downright luxurious, as would all of the delicious meals we can make out of Thanksgiving leftovers.

So what did the Puritans really eat so many years ago? Well, some of their dishes might look familiar, but others… not so much.

But as strange as some might look to us, imagine someone from 1621 trying to figure out a marshmallow!

[H/T: Dusty Old Thing, Washington Post, Plimoth Plantation]

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by the Pilgrims, who arranged the feast as a gesture of thanks for a bountiful harvest, following a brutal winter that claimed many lives.

The original feast went on for not one but three days, and was attended by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.

It was also celebrated in September, around the actual harvest time. The November date would be installed by Abraham Lincoln in the nineteenth century.

So what do you eat for three whole days?

The first and most important staple of Thanksgiving is the turkey, but it wasn’t the only meat the Puritans’ table.

Records mention “fowl” but don’t specify which kind. Wild turkey may very well have been on the menu, but there was probably also geese and ducks.

Records also show a lot of seafood like cod, bass, lobster, and oysters.

There was also a large amount of venison prepared.

There would have also been plenty of corn on the table.

The Puritans learned how to prepare corn, a New World staple, thanks to the local Patuxet and Wampanoag Native Americans, who also provided them with food during the first harsh winter.

Corn was often eaten as a mashed porridge, as well as with beans in succotash.

Squash is not only a fall staple, but also a New World food that the Puritans learned to cook, thanks to the Native Americans.

The Puritans probably enjoyed pumpkin, but they wouldn’t have made pie, since they had no access to wheat for flour, sugar, or butter.

The first pumpkin pie wasn’t recorded until 1650.

And what about everyone’s favorite part of the bird, the stuffing? It did exist, but not exactly how we imagine it today.

Back in the 1600s, the stuffing wouldn’t have taken the form of the croutons we use today, since bread was made from maize, not wheat.

Instead, the stuffing would have likely been onions and herbs.

And it wouldn’t just be for the birds. Fish got the stuffing treatment, too.

Although today we can’t imagine a Thanksgiving meal without them, potatoes were not served at the first feast.

Potatoes are also a New World food, and most Europeans were actually not familiar with them at the time.

Sweet potatoes were a rare delicacy at the time, and would have really only been available to the wealthy, who also thought it was an aphrodisiac. And obviously, there were no mini marshmallows.

Instead, the vegetable dishes were probably carrots, cabbage, and spinach.

As for cranberry sauce, if it appeared, historians think it probably only turned up in dishes brought by the Native Americans.

Cranberries are super sour, so they wouldn’t appear as the much sweeter sauce we know today, since sugar was unavailable.

The meal would go on to evolve and change over the generations, and Thanksgiving would be declared an official holiday in the 1800s.

It became especially popular in the late 1800s with immigrants from all over the world, who celebrated their new lives and mingling of cultures in the New World.

Would you have eaten a 1621-style Thanksgiving meal? Or do you prefer the version that’s evolved over the past 400 years?

Let us know in the comments, and SHARE this piece of history over the Thanksgiving table!