By Hazel Bacigalupo for South Shore Organics
However, much of the food we associate today with Thanksgiving was not available to the Pilgrims. Instead, their table was loaded with native fruits like plums, melons, grapes, and cranberries, plus local vegetables such as leeks, wild onions, beans, Jerusalem artichokes, and squash. (English crops such as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, onions, carrots, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme might have also been on hand.) And for the starring dishes, there were undoubtedly native birds and game as well as the Wampanoag gift of five deer. Fish and shellfish were also likely on the groaning board.
There is no concrete way to know if they had any roast turkey that day, but we do know there were plenty of wild turkeys in the region then, “and both the native Wampanoag Indians and English colonists ate them,” writes Kathleen Curtin of Plimoth Plantation in Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from the Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie. That doesn’t explain why the big, ungainly bird has become the de facto traditional centerpiece around which the entire meal is built, but at least it gives us a feeling of authenticity to imagine that America’s forefathers might have been gnawing on a crispy turkey leg, just like we do over four centuries later.
As for beverages to wash down the feast, Curtin says the Pilgrims likely drank just water. “In their first year, the English colonists had grown a few acres of barley, so it is possible that some beer or ale may have been brewed by the end of harvest time—but given how long it takes to brew and ferment beer, this seems unlikely. “Wine, considered a finer beverage than beer, may have been brought across by some travelers on the Mayflower. It was frequently mentioned in later accounts of supplies to the colonies. By the mid-1600s, cider would become the main beverage of New Englanders, but in 1621 Plymouth, there were not any apples yet.”
We thought it would be fun to take a look at a few recipes of the early 1600s and that might have been used at the first Thanksgiving.
Roast Venison If you will roast any venison, after you have washed it, and cleansed all the blood from it, you shall stick it with cloves all over on the outside; and if it be lean you shall lard it either with mutton lard, or pork lard, but mutton is the best: then spit it and roast it by a soaking fire, then take vinegar, bread crumbs, and some of the gravy which comes from the venison, and boil them well in a dish; then season it with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and salt, and serve the venison forth upon the sauce when it is roasted enough.
Boiled Fish Take any fresh fish whatsoever (as pike, bream, carp, barbel, chevin, and such like) and draw it, but scale it not; then take out the liver and the refuse, and having opened it, wash it; then take a bottle of fair water, a pretty quantity of white wine, good store of salt, and some vinegar, with a little bunch of sweet herbs, and set it on the fire, and as soon as it begins to boil, put in your fish, and having boiled a little, take it up into a fair vessel, then put into the liquor some gross pepper, and slit ginger; and when it is boiled well together with more salt, set it by to cool, and then put your fish into it, and when you serve it up, lay fennel thereupon.
Sauce for a Turkey Take fair water, and set it over the fire, then slice good store of onions and put into it, and also pepper and salt, and good store of the gravy that comes from the turkey, and boil them very well together: then put to it a few fine crumbs of grated bread to thicken it; a very little sugar and some vinegar, and so serve it up with the turkey: or otherwise, take grated white bread and boil it in white wine till it be thick as a galantine, and in the boiling put in good store of sugar and cinnamon, and then with a little turnsole* make it of a high murrey** color, and so serve it in sauces with the turkey in the manner of a galantine. (*Plant yielding purple dye **Reddish brown color)