2021 Home for the Holiday
Bring on the Joy

What did the pilgrims really eat that first Thanksgiving?
By Nila Smith

Send a link to a friend  Share

[December 03, 2021]  Thanksgiving is a special day of the year for many Americans. The holiday represents to us today the gathering of family for a great feast. Sometime during the event we may recognize that the day was first started by the Pilgrims as they celebrated their first harvest in the new world.

What we often leave out is the idea that these people in a new world were there for religious reasons. They had fled from England because the English practice of Christianity and church was being forced upon them, and they found it distasteful.

But, it should also be noted, that on the voyage of the Mayflower, only about half of the passengers were truly coming to America for religious freedom. The others were a motley mix of thieves, thugs, and restless people who were curious for a new world and perhaps saw it as a way to make great wealth.

The voyage, off to a late start, cost many lives along the way. The passengers grew ill and because they were packed so closely together in the holds of the ship, the illnesses spread, few were spared sickness and many died at sea.

While many of the pilgrims, especially those seeking fame and fortune thought that they would be traveling to the land of milk and honey where food fell off trees and into their hands by the bushel and the land was rich and productive, they found that expectation was not correct.

Landing in the midst of winter, the hardships the pilgrims faced on land were almost as severe as the hardships they suffered on the Mayflower. Death rates continued to soar. By spring, the number of people settling in the Plymouth area was reduced by half of what had left England the summer before.

The Mayflower sailed in the late summer-early fall of 1620, and arrived in America early in the year 1621.

The Pilgrims were afraid of the Indians (or as we call them today Native Americans), and had heard that the “savages” hungered to put them all to death. Therefore, when they were approached by friendly, English speaking Squanto, they were stunned. The friendship with the Indian helped the Pilgrims in many ways, and in that first fall on land, they called together a great celebration to acknowledge that they had been blessed in America, had survived and even thrived in that first year.

That celebration probably did not occur in late November 1621, but perhaps weeks earlier, before severe cold weather set in. Historians are unable to pinpoint the exact date, but estimate the feast occurred sometime between mid-September and early November and lasted a number of days.

Edward Winslow was one of the “firstcomers” as they called themselves. He wrote letters back home to friends left behind in England. In one such letter he wrote of that first feast.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, 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 we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

According to Winslow’s words, the greatest amount of meat on the tables that first feast was venison. The men hand also hunted for fowl, but it was most likely not turkey as according to New England Today. More than likely the fowl was duck and goose. Though not mentioned in Winslow’s letter, fishing was a popular way to provide food and mussels and shellfish were plentiful along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

So, probably no turkey. Instead, there was venison and fowl and possibly some shellfish. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes as neither the Indians nor Pilgrims grew those foods.

Instead, they grew corn and beans, onions, pumpkins and squash. They also harvested the fruits of the forest, nuts and berries. Cranberries grew wild in the forest so that particular Thanksgiving staple may well have been on the table in some form.

So, how is it that today, turkey became the foundation of most Thanksgiving meals? According to Britannica.com that may be due to a book written by Sarah Joseph Hale in 1827. In her novel “Northwood” she devoted a chapter to that first Thanksgiving feast and referred to the turkey placed at the head of the table.

So, why did people all assume her words were correct? According to Britannica, the Pilgrims did not see that first feast as the significant affair that we do. For the English a feast celebrating the harvest was a common thing, and no one saw it as anything extra special. In fact, the only account of that actual feast on record is that of Edward Winslow.

In addition, Hale was an influencer. She was the one who first began trying to get Thanksgiving named as a national holiday. She did so to try and bring a new unity to the American people, as this was just prior to the Civil War, and unrest within the country troubled Hale, as it did others. Her work paid off in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday or observance.

Other opinions say that indeed turkey might well have been a part of that first meal. Though Winslow’s account is the only one of that first harvest feast, William Bradford another first-comer on the Mayflower did record in his journal “a great store of wild turkeys” in Plymouth.

Another thing we do know about that first year in Plymouth is that flour was not a commodity the Pilgrims had access to in abundance. What flour they had was used sparingly. So, there is no evidence that there were pies, noodles, or even gravy. Flour would have been saved for making bread. Also, the Pilgrims and Indians alike did raise corn, and corn as a vegetable would have been served, and ground corn could have been used to make biscuits and puddings.

[to top of second column]

In 2003, 'New England Today' visited Plimoth Patuxet (formerly known as Plymouth Plantation), a living history museum that documents the life and times of the Pilgrims. After conducting their research they reached out to writer Jane Walsh, and asked her to come up with some traditional first Thanksgiving recipes.

Here are some of those “historically inspired” recipes:

Chestnut Croquettes

Yield: Serves 6

2 cups hot mashed chestnuts
4 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 egg

Mix the chestnuts, butter, 2 eggs, slightly beaten, and seasonings. Shape into croquettes, roll in crumbs, then in beaten egg, and again in crumbs. Fry in deep hot fat (375-39O degrees F) until the crumbs are brown-2-5 minutes.

New England Succotash Recipe
New England Succotash Recipe - New England Today

A combination of cranberry beans and corn kernels, succotash was one of the first foods that the Native Americans of coastal New England shared with the Plymouth settlers. Rich in nutrients and inexpensive to make, it was especially popular during the Depression and World War II. This bean and corn succotash recipe is especially nice in summer.

Note: Cranberry beans are closest to the type of bean that would have originally been used in this dish, but fresh or frozen lima beans are a popular substitute.

Total Time: 20
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

6 ears fresh corn
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 pounds fresh cranberry beans or fresh or frozen lima beans, shelled (see Note)
1/8 pound salt pork, cut into 4 pieces (optional)
1/2 small onion, minced
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)

Use a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the cobs and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the beans, salt pork (if using), and onion. Cook, stirring often, until the beans are tender and the onion is golden, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the corn and add enough water to cover by 1/2 inch. Add the sugar and remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Bring to a gentle bubble and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Remove the salt pork and season with salt and pepper. Add cream, if desired. Serve hot.


While no one is suggesting that we give up our traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, noodles or gravy or both and an abundance of pies, it might be fun to this year add one of those original recipes to your holiday table.

Remember, shellfish was a part of the menu also, add some shrimp, crab, or oysters to that table as well.

Finally, you need no longer feel lazy if you open a can of mixed nuts and pour them in a bowl for the table. Just tell your guests you are following the path of that first Thanksgiving in 1621!

Regardless of what you eat Thanksgiving Day, please take time to remember why you are eating it. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate family, friends, prosperity and religious freedom. Regardless of how you worship, those firstcomers are the ones who made it possible for you to do so freely.

Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving? | Britannica

What Did the Pilgrims Eat at the First Thanksgiving? - New England Today

Exploring PlimothPatuxet | A New England Living History Museum - New England Today


Read all the articles in our new
2021 Home for the Holiday magazine

Intro Home for the Holidays 4
What did the pilgrims really eat that first thanksgiving? 6
The tawdry history (and future) of the ugly Christmas sweater 12
Draw Friends and family closer this holiday 16
Shop local:  Some really hot tips 22
Christmas traditions around the world 29
Curmudgeon's holidays almost perfect except for... 35
A family holiday....In the ZONE!! 40

< Recent features

Back to top