Four hundred years ago this fall, 50 Pilgrims sat down to eat with 90 members of the native Wampanoag tribe to give thanks for their first harvest in the New World.
No one knows the exact dates of the feast, other than it was sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9 of that year. The menu of what was served is likewise lost to history, but we have a few clues.
In a letter sent in December 1621, Edward Winslow wrote that four of the men successfully hunted for fowl, which very possibly could have been wild turkeys — but it also could have been ducks, geese or swans. The Indians brought five deer, which presumably were also served, but we don’t know that for certain.
The most successful crop of that first harvest was corn, so we can extrapolate that it was on the menu. Pumpkins were plentiful, though the Pilgrims lacked the flour to make crusts for pie.
Because they were on the Atlantic Ocean, seafood was abundant. We know they often caught bass and cod, and lobster was also plentiful, at least in the summer. Eels, too, were readily available, and mussels were harvested simply by overturning rocks.
I should point out here that I am speaking of the First Thanksgiving of popular lore, the one held by the Pilgrims in 1621. There was an earlier Thanksgiving in December 1619, at the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia, at which the settlers gave prayerful thanks for their safe arrival.
It was a religious service, though, and food was not involved. The case for it being the true First Thanksgiving is pressed only by cantankerous Virginians and sticklers for accuracy.
With an eye toward history, I decided to make my own version of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving meal, or at least part of it. Because we don’t know what the actual meal was, my version is more of an exercise in what could have been served, based on our knowledge of what was available and their recipes from the time.
But first, a couple of caveats. I did not make venison because I do not have access to it. And a couple of the recipes use sugar, which the Pilgrims did bring with them from Holland but which they had run out of, or nearly had, by the time of their harvest feast.
On the other hand, if they didn’t save a little for Thanksgiving, what did they use it for?
Assuming that pumpkins were probably served, I made stewed pumpkins. The recipe is an adaptation of a recipe published by John Josselyn, an Englishman who first visited New England in 1638 and again in 1663.
The original recipe calls for the pumpkin to be cut into pieces and simmered for several hours, but I hadn’t seen the original recipe when I made it and, knowing that Pilgrims sometimes cooked their pumpkins on hot coals, I began by roasting mine in the oven.
It didn’t make a difference. Even roasted, the side dish came out smooth and robustly flavored. It’s surprising how pumpkin can be improved with a splash of vinegar, a portion of ground ginger and a knob of butter.
If we are to stick strictly to what could have been served at the First Thanksgiving, then butter would not have been included. The Pilgrims did not have butter; their first cow did not come across the ocean until 1623.
But use the butter. It makes all the difference. The recipe for stewed pumpkins is probably why they sent for those first cows, anyway.
My first entrée was steamed mussels — or as the original 1597 recipe put it, “To Seeth Muscles.”
The dish could be served today to considerable acclaim, and no one would suspect it is nearly 425 years old. Some recipes are just classic. The mussels are steamed in a broth of water, butter, parsley, garlic (a modern addition) and vinegar instead of the wine that would usually be used today.
My assumption that wine was not used in steaming — or seething — mussels because the Pilgrims did not drink turned out to be incorrect. In fact, they did drink wine, beer and especially hard cider, but they took care not to drink to excess. But wine was expensive, and the cooks of the day preferred vinegar.
The second entrée is a stewed turkey that is based on an English recipe from 1615, and it, too, could easily find a place on a table in the 21st century.
The cooks of the time would have used a whole turkey, but wild turkeys are smaller than domesticated turkeys, and pots were bigger. So I used turkey thighs and legs, which were about one pound apiece, and cooked them in my largest Dutch oven.
I boiled the turkey, along with a heaping amount of onions, herbs, butter, sugar and more, because that is what the recipe I was following — published by the Plimoth Plantation, I should point out — told me to do. It was, unquestionably, delicious.
But it wasn’t historically accurate. When I later looked up the original 1615 recipe, it is clear that the turkey was meant to be roasted by itself and the other ingredients boiled together for a sauce.
If you want to make it that way, well, don’t let me stop you. But boiling the turkey makes it wonderfully tender and imparts even more flavor to the brothlike sauce.
For dessert, I turned to a dish that easily could have been served at the First Thanksgiving, a sweetened corn pudding.
The corn of the region was different from the corn we typically enjoy now; flint corn has a very hard outer layer that would have to be pounded to get to the more easily edible part inside. What results is a coarse cornmeal, so that is what I used for my corn pudding.
Basically, I made grits, which I softened with a bit of milk and sweetened with less sugar than you might think.
In this case, as in so many, less is more. It’s a light and refreshing way to finish a Thanksgiving meal that, for once, is not too heavy.
Yield: 8 servings
4 cups cooked pumpkin, see note
4 tablespoons butter
1 to 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons of ground ginger (or any combination of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pepper, to taste)
1 teaspoon salt
Note: Use pie pumpkins (or canned). Remove seeds and slimy strings from fresh pumpkins, and either cut into small pieces and boil until very tender or cut in half and roast at 375 degrees until very tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Scoop flesh from skin if skin is hard.
Place all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat. Mash together if pumpkin is fresh. Stir and heat until all of the ingredients are well-combined and hot. Adjust the seasonings to your liking and serve.
Per serving: 94 calories; 6 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 10 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 298 mg sodium; 34 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe in “New England’s Rarities: Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, and Plants of that Country,” (John Josselyn, 1671), adapted by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation in “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie”
‘SEETHED’ MUSSELS WITH PARSLEY AND VINEGAR
Yield: 8 servings
4 pounds of mussels
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1. Place mussels in cold water and scrub them clean. “Beard” them by taking off the tuft of fibers projecting from the shell (if there are any — many farm-raised mussels are “beardless”). Discard any mussels that are broken or do not close when touched.
2. Place 1 cup of water, butter, parsley, vinegar, salt, pepper and garlic into a large pot, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the mussels and reduce the heat so that the mussels cook at a simmer. Cover and cook, shaking the pot occasionally, for 10 minutes or until all of the mussels have opened fully. Keep an eye on the mussels — if cooked too long, they can be chewy.
3. To serve, pour the mussels and broth into bowls, setting another empty bowl on the table for discarded shells.
Per serving: 226 calories; 8 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 71 mg cholesterol; 27 g protein; 9g carbohydrate; no sugar; 1 g fiber; 871 mg sodium; 68 mg calcium
Adapted from “The Second Part of the Good Huswives” (Thomas Dawson, 1597), by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation in “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie”
STEWED TURKEY WITH HERBS AND ONIONS
Yield: 6 servings
4 pounds turkey parts (thighs and legs work well for this recipe)
1 teaspoon salt
2 large onions, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
Bundle of fresh herbs, tied (any combination of the following is appropriate: sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram or savory), or 2 tablespoons dried
1/3 cup red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
6 (1-inch-thick) slices of hearty bread, cut in half and toasted or fried until browned
1. Rinse the turkey pieces and place them in a pot large enough to accommodate them. Cover with cold water and add the salt. Cover the pot and bring the contents to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the temperature to keep the broth at a low simmer for 1 hour. Periodically, skim any froth that rises to the surface.
2. After an hour, remove the turkey pieces and set aside to cool. Raise the heat until the broth comes to a boil. Continue boiling, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
3. When the broth is reduced, add the sliced onions, herbs, vinegar, butter, sugar, peppercorns and cloves. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the onions are soft. While the broth is simmering, cut the cooled turkey into serving pieces.
4. Before serving, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Place the meat into the broth and “let it take a walme or two,” that is, let it simmer gently for just a minute. Pour the turkey and sauce into a serving bowl. Pass the “sippets” (toasted bread slices) to serve as a base for the turkey and to sop up the sauce.
Per serving: 513 calories; 4 g fat; 9g saturated fat; 170 mg cholesterol; 75 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 826 mg sodium; 63 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe in “Country Contentments, or the English Huswife” (Gervase Markham, 1615), by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation in “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie”
A SWEET PUDDING OF INDIAN CORN
Yield: 6 servings
6 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups very coarse cornmeal or grits
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, or more to taste
1. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the salt and the coarse grits, stirring until the contents of the pot return to a boil. Turn the heat to low, and cook very gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Be sure to stir across the bottom of the pot to keep the cornmeal from sticking.
2. Remove from the heat and allow to stand about 30 minutes or until the cornmeal is tender. Stir in the milk and sugar.
3. Variation (based on 17th-century recipes for rice pudding): To make a more deluxe version, you can use cream in place of milk, add sweet spices at the end to taste (such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves or ginger) and 1/2 cup of currants or raisins.
Per serving: 177 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 1 mg cholesterol; 4 g protein; 21 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 239 mg sodium; 25 mg calcium
Reprinted with permission from “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie” by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation.