Hello and welcome to a special — and slightly shorter than usual — edition of This Week in History! As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches, I thought it would be a fun deviation from the norm of this column to answer a simple yet perplexing question: What did the Pilgrims and Wampanoags eat on the first Thanksgiving?
Before we dive into that question, I would like to raise the point that food history is incredibly cool. Humans only have so many different ingredients to work with, and yet different cultures and civilizations all produce vibrant meals and delicious foods that certainly merit a place in the history books. If you’d like to look at historic recipes recreated, I recommend checking out Townsends on Youtube, who follows 18th century recipes by the book with similar ingredients — and Tasting History with Max Miller, who explores a wide variety of recipes. I cannot recommend exploring the history of food enough — though I suggest doing so on a full stomach.
Alright, back to the question at hand. Historians have long sought to recreate the Thanksgiving feast — in part because reading lots of historical documents makes one incredibly hungry — but also because the dishes assembled could reveal much about the people who produced them, and at the same time, hint at the origins of the modern tradition.
As other writers on the subject begin: It is easiest to cross off the foods that would most definitely not be on the plates of those dining at the first Thanksgiving. These include the traditional mashed potatoes — as white potatoes had yet to become prevalent in North America — cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Likewise, anything that required flour or butter would not be present, as the pilgrims and natives possessed neither.
So far the plate is looking quite empty, as it lacks all the necessary sides one would typically associate with the meal, but at least there was turkey to go around, right? One account does mention the gathering of turkeys, but not at the forefront of the meal. The main course was actually venison supplied by the Wampanoag tribesman in attendance. And a quick note, I specify tribesmen as it is believed that no women were present at the feast; in fact, it was largely a political gathering to begin with.
At this point, if you were in attendance your plate (nobody in attendance actually used plates or silverware, by the way) would look something like this: A large piece of venison, as supplied by the Wampanoag, supplemented by other locally available meats such as clams and fish or even Pilgrim poached duck — and then foraged veggies such as chard and corn.
While missing many of the carbohydrate-heavy dishes of the modern meal, one can see the feast taking shape. Some other notable sides may have been present too, such as “sobaheg,” a traditional Wampanoag dish with mixed meats and veggies, sort of similar to a breadless stuffing or stew.
So, with a final scoop of sobaheg, the first Thanksgiving dinner comes together. I would again like to reiterate that much of the historical information around the feast is speculative, as only two accounts survive. One of which however, is a letter by Edward Winslow, who concludes: “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.”
And that wraps up this special taste of Thanksgiving history — if you seek to recreate the meal eaten from the first Thanksgiving, please, at least use plates and utensils and allow women to partake. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!