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What the Pilgrims Really Ate

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What the Pilgrims Really Ate

For most Americans, the “traditional” Thanksgiving feast includes turkey, cranberry sauce, yams, pumpkin pie, and a few vegetables. The whole meal may last an hour or two.

However, many of the foods now associated with Thanksgiving weren’t available for the first feast, which stretched three-days long.

Turkey, of course, was served (and has been the main entrée for almost 400 years). However, it was wild – not domestic turkey – that the Pilgrims and Indians consumed. They also ate venison – from the five deer that the Indians brought to the celebration – as well as ducks and geese.

Cod and bass were also served. And it’s very likely that shellfish appeared on the first Thanksgiving table because it was a common food of the day.

The Pilgrims also feasted on sourdough bread, which they called “Cheate Bread.” Cornbread was made from hominy.

The early corn was known as flint corn, which was raised by the Indians and roasted. It’s not a sweet corn or a popping corn.

The few vegetables that were served were boiled onions and spinach and stewed pumpkin. Onions were peeled, quartered, and boiled with raisins, sugar, egg, and vinegar. Spinach was also boiled. It was then drained and served with currants, butter, sugar, and vinegar.

Dessert? It was a prune tart seasoned with rosemary, rosewater, and cinnamon and sweetened with sugar.

So how did the Indians and Pilgrims eat all this food? Not with a fork, which hadn’t debuted yet on the dining room table. Guests sliced off their own portions of meat with a knife. Spoons, wood plates, bowls, and large linen napkins were used. Napkins were also used as hot pads to handle hot meats during the early days of Plymouth.

What wasn’t served at the first Thanksgiving?

  • There was no cranberry sauce because sugar was in low supply.
  • Breads were generally baked in round loaves instead of loaf pans.
  • Apples and pears weren’t growing in this region at the time and certainly weren’t on hand to make into pies or sauce.
  • Domestic turkey was not served. Only wild turkey was available.
  • There was no colorful Indian corn. Only flint corn was grown.
  • Mashed potatoes weren’t prepared by the Pilgrims since potatoes weren’t yet grown in their gardens.
  • Pumpkin pie wasn’t served in a pastry shell. Instead, pumpkins were diced and stewed, then seasoned with ginger, cinnamon, butter, and vinegar to make it tart.

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If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1919, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.

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