When we talk about Thanksgiving, the traditional celebration feast automatically comes to
our mind, in its entire splendor and grandeur. The annual occasion of Thanksgiving is, in
fact, considered as a day to feast, celebrate and give thanks. The dinner is usually served
in the afternoon. Friends and family members get together to commemorate and rejoice
the occasion and indulge in a variety of mouth-watering delicacies, like stuffed potatoes,
casseroles and desserts. What tops the list is the traditional turkey recipe, which is
considered as the main course of the meal, served along with the innumerous side dishes.
The recipes to prepare these dishes are usually handed down from generation to
generation. The little influence that we see in the preparations is due to modernization as
well as intermingling of cultures.
Contrary to the popular belief, the pumpkin pie, cornbread, roasted turkey and all the
Thanksgiving paraphernalia that we see on the Thanksgiving Dinner table do not owe
their root to the original Thanksgiving meal of the Pilgrims. In 1621, a harvest festival was
celebrated by the colonists or the Pilgrims, to thank God for saving their lives and guiding
them through their journey in Mayflower and the following years of draught at Plymouth.
After the rain that marked the end of the draught and revived the crop of corn and other
fruits, they decided to celebrate the day with their neighbors or Massasoit, the chief of the
Native Indians or Wampanoags, and his family. He came with all his extended family that
constituted ninety people and stayed for three days.
Colonists were, of course, in bad shape and there were only four grown up married ladies
left to do all the cooking. Thus, General Bradford sent four of his soldiers to hunt for fowls,
who brought such a large number with them that it could feed the whole village for a
week. Wampanoags also helped in supplementing the food supplies by contributing five
deer they had killed and probably other supplies out of courtesy. The food listed in
Winslow's account consists of corn meal, fish such as bass and cod and wild fowls or
turkeys. Other things that were not listed, but were available to residents of Plymouth in
those days and were probably a part of the feast were lobster, rabbit, chicken, squashes,
beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey,
radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and may be goat cheese.
Potatoes were unavailable in those days and butter and oil were scarce. There were no
ovens, so though pumpkin stew and pudding may have been served, there was no scope
to prepare pumpkin pies. Women who did the cooking were born and raised in England
and probably experimented with their cooking by adapting their cooking methods to the
native foods available to them. Roasting was the preferred method of preparing meats
and poultry. But roasting on a spit over a fire took hours and required constant monitoring
by someone who also turned the spite every now and then, so perhaps roasted venison
was served with boiled fish and fowl or turkey. It is not unlikely that few of these birds may
still have an overlooked birdshot embedded inside them.
Indian corns do not pop well, so there were no popcorn on the Thanksgiving table, though
corn may have been ground into meal for bread and thickener. Though cranberries were
available to the colonists, cranberry sauce could not possibly have been served, because
they had no access to sugar. Though honey or syrup could have been used to sweeten
the cranberries, it required a lot of labor. Since there were four ladies cooking all day, to
feed the crowd of about 150 people, they could not have find time to do all that work. In
short, the Thanksgiving meal for the pilgrims would have consisted of roasted venison,
stewed or boiled fowl, lobster and fish, corn and wheat breads, stew of dried fruits and
perhaps pumpkin, one or two boiled vegetables and only water to drink.
So like we always should do on this day of thanks, remember the first to settle in this great
Nation and why they gave thanks for the little they had.