Thanksgiving’s always been a time to celebrate life’s bounties—namely, food. But for the Pilgrims and Native American Wampanoag who gathered round the table for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the fact that food was available at all was something to appreciate. “The first Thanksgiving was actually a three day harvest celebration in October,” says Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a historic museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. What the settlers and Native people mostly ate was a far cry from the turkey, stuffing, and green bean casserole we’ll feast on this November. Here, a look at the foods that likely did—and didn’t—show up at the meal. Plus, two modern-day dishes, inspired by the first Thanksgiving, to add to your family’s menu.
What they ate then:
Corn The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the corn harvest, making the grain—rather than turkey—the meal’s centerpiece. Instead of yellow corn, the Pilgrims and Native people ate flint corn, which wasn’t sweet and couldn’t be eaten of the cob. “It was dried and milled into a flour to use for porridge, pudding, and bread,” explains Wall.
Wild Fowl Wild turkey might’ve made it to the table, but the settlers also could’ve eaten duck, goose, or quail, as well as pigeons, swans, or cranes. Most likely, the fowl was roasted or boiled.
Shellfish and Crustaceans Living on the coast, “mussels, crab, lobster, and clams were easy to come by,” Wall says.
Venison Deer was considered a royal delicacy in England, and so it was highly coveted. When the Native Americans brought deer to the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims saw it as a gift to honor and respect, says Wall.
Nuts and Root Vegetables Diners likely munched on raw, wild walnuts or chestnuts. And since the Pilgrims had planted gardens, they served up veggies like onions or turnips that were boiled and seasoned with simple ingredients like oil and vinegar.
What we eat now:
Mashed Potatoes Today’s star Thanksgiving side dish didn’t exist in 1621 New England. “The Irish began bringing potatoes to New England in the 1800s,” Wall says. Sweet potatoes weren’t around either.
Pumpkin Pie The settlers probably had pumpkin, but wouldn’t have been able to bake it into a pie. They hadn’t planted wheat to make flour yet, and would have run out of any sugar they’d packed upon leaving England in 1620.
Cranberry Sauce Since the first Thanksgiving took place in October, the wild cranberries that were usually picked in November wouldn’t have been ready to eat, Wall says. When cranberries were harvested, they were usually added to roasted or boiled meat rather than cooked into a sauce.
Steamed Mussels with Cider and Cream
Mussels were almost certainly part of the first Thanksgiving feast, and though apples wouldn’t b grown in America for a few more years, by the mid-1600s orchards were well established and cider was New England’s most popular beverage. Serving a bigger crowd? The recipe easily doubles.
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium leek (white and light green parts only), halved lengthwise, rinsed well, and sliced in 1/4-inch half moons (about 1 cup)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 cup apple cider
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/ 4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Crusty bread, for serving
1. Melt butter in a large stockpot over medium-low heat. Add leek and saute until soft but not golden, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and thyme and saute 1 more minute. Stir in vinegar, then cider. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Add mussels, cover pot, and cook 3 to 5 minutes, or until mussels have opened. Discard any mussels that remain closed.
2. With a slotted spoon, transfer mussels to a large bowl. Stir cream and mustard into cider mixture and cook until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Return mussels to pot. Toss well, sprinkle with parsley, and serve family-style with crusty bread.
Per serving: calories 146, fat 8 g, protein 25 g, carbohydrates 10 g, dietary fiber 0 g
Double Corn Cheese Grits
The first Thanksgiving meal is said to have included corn grits, likely in the form of a simple porridge. This modern version jazzes them up with sharp cheddar, corn kernels, sliced scallions, and a jolt of hot sauce. Serve alongside your turkey and gravy for a knockout substitute for mashed potatoes.
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
2 1/2 cups 2 percent milk
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup quick-cooking corn grits
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed, plus more for garnish
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup reduced-fat cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan, bring milk, water, and salt to just below a boil. Gradually add grits, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 5 minutes
2.While grits are cooking, melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add scallion whites and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and corn; sauté 2 more minutes.
3. Take girts off the heat and stir in both cheese until well-combined. Stir in the corn mixture, half the scallion greens, the hot sauce, pepper, and additional salt to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl, and garnish with remaining scallions and corn kernels.
Per serving: calories 174. fat 10 g, protein 7 g, carbohydrates 13 g, dietary fiber 1 g