Thanksgiving gets closer and closer, and some families may already be preparing their traditional meal of stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pies, and, let’s not forget, turkey. But has turkey always been a traditional food for Thanksgiving? Was it served at the first ever Thanksgiving? How about pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce? The answers to the above questions are “probably not.”
There have been plenty arguments in the past about when the “first Thanksgiving” really was, and where it was held. Traditionally, we tend to accept that it dates back to November 1621, when the pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered around to celebrate their Fall harvest and short-lived peace. While there is no full, original list of foods at this harvest, it has been suggested that the pilgrims enjoyed roasted Turkey, though it is not for certain. In fact, the governor of the pilgrim colony in 1621, William Bradford, recorded that the men went on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the harvest, and never explicitly acknowledges if they caught wild turkeys or not.
Historians tend to believe that, although wild turkeys were plentiful in the region, it was likely that the settlers and Native Americans chowed down on birds that were regularly consumed, such as swans, ducks, and geese on Thanksgiving rather than turkey. While the turkey was a common bird to cook up in the New England areas of America, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when turkey became a staple food for Thanksgiving.
As for pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce, scholars have noted that the pilgrims, in no way, had these at their first celebration. While cranberries were regularly enjoyed by the Native Americans and introduced to the pilgrims, at the “first Thanksgiving,” the pilgrims did not have access to plentiful sugar. The sugar that originally accompanied the colonists on their journey on the Mayflower was almost fully depleted by November 1621. Therefore, they couldn’t have made a cranberry sauce. Besides, cooks didn’t start boiling cranberries with sugar to act as a sauce for meats until 50 years later. Without the sugar, this also means the pilgrims did not have pumpkin pies. While the Pilgrims and the Native Americans did eat pumpkins and other squashes, the colony did not have the butter or wheat flour necessary for making a pie. Also, they hadn’t constructed an oven yet, either, so there’s that.
Thanksgiving is still clearly a national holiday full of special traditions for each family. While originally celebrated for the bountiful fall harvest, it is now regarded as a time for families to gather around and “give thanks.” Just remember that the “traditional” dishes you consume were not actually present at the first Thanksgiving, but just eventually came about from cultural development.