First Thanksgiving

Print More

(HOST) This time of year, we decorate our classrooms with cut-outs of construction paper pilgrims, but commentator Marialisa Calta says that some of the stories we tell to go with them are more myth than history.

(CALTA) The historians who run Plimoth Plantation, in Massachusetts – the site of the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 –
can tell you this: there was no “First Thanksgiving” in 1621.

In fact, the folks at Plimoth can tell you to forget pretty much everything you thought you knew about that “First Thanksgiving.”

Yes, the Pilgrims did hold a feast in 1621. It took place over a three-day period, and fifty-two colonists and ninety Native Americans attended. But in the Pilgrims’ minds it was a traditional, English-style harvest festival; and they wouldn’t have called it a Thanksgiving. To them, Thanksgiving meant a day of heavy-duty church worship; hold the feast. The Pilgrims held the first of those in 1623, at the end of a long drought.

So what about Thanksgiving dinner? The one with the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie?
It didn’t happen, at least not in 1621.

That menu developed, more or less, in the late 1800s, when nostalgic Victorians began re-inventing the holiday.

So what did the Pilgrims dine on?

Back then, “stuffing” meant herbs and onions and oats. Cranberry sauce wasn’t created for another fifty years, although some of those native berries might have been used in meat dishes brought by the Wampanoag Indians. Sweet potatoes (along with white potatoes) grew in South – not North – America. They were known to some wealthy Europeans and botanists, but it’s unlikely that any of the Pilgrims or Native Americans had ever heard of them. Pumpkin was served, but not in pie – there was no flour or fat to make a crust, so it was probably stewed.

And – this is harsh – historians are not even sure that turkey was on the menu. The Pilgrims ate plenty of wild turkey, but the only contemporary description of the harvest feast says merely that four men went out “fowling,” and bagged a huge amount in a short time. This suggests they may have been hunting water fowl and not turkey, which is more time-consuming. Flint corn was served, as was venison – a gift of the Native Americans. The meal may have been rounded out with wild grapes, lobster, and rabbit.

It was all quite different than what we learned in grade school.

But, some things never change. For one thing, Pilgrims back then ate with their fingers; if there are any children at your table, you’ll note the similarities. For another, a Plimoth historian says that, “food and diplomacy were both central to the 1621 celebration. If, this year, you’ve got a gathering of Republicans and Democrats – or Tampa Bay and Dallas fans – you’ll see diplomacy in action, first-hand. Finally, at the time of the 1621 feast, there were fifty-two surviving colonists. Only five of them were women.
Guess who did the cooking?

Marialisa Calta is a free-lance writer and cookbook author.


Original Recipe:
But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day ..and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger &c) which makes it tart like an Apple. From “New England Rarities Discovered”, by John Jocelyn, 1672.

Modern Recipe:
3 pounds whole pumpkin, butternut or acorn squash, or 2 and 1/2 pounds of the flesh of the squash, cut into large chunks (8 cups of chunks)
3 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 or 2 teaspoons ground ginger (or nutmeg, cloves, or pepper, to taste, if preferred)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Steam the squash over boiling water until tender – 10 to 15 minutes. Drain. Allow to cool and then puree in a food processor or mash with a potato-masher. Place in a saucepan with remaining ingredients and gently heat through, stirring occasionally.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Recipes courtesy of Plimoth Plantation and “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrims To Pumpkin Pie,” by Kathleeen Curtin, Sandra Oliver and the Plimoth Plantation. (Clarkson Potter, 2005)


For the crust: (see note)
1 1/3 cups gingersnap cookie crumbs (about 25 2-inch gingersnaps)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree or 1 and 1/2 cups pureed cooked pumpkin or butternut squash
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt

Make the crust: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Generously butter a nine-inch pie plate.

Put the cookie crumbs in a bowl, and stir in the sugar, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. With a fork, stir in the melted butter until well mixed. Press the mixture into the prepared pie plate. Bake the pie crust for six minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool. Use immediately or cover with aluminum foil and keep at room temperature for up to three days.

Make the filling: In a large bowl, mix the pumpkin puree and the eggs together. Add the sugar, brown sugar, half-and-half and vanilla and mix well. Stir in the ginger, cinnamon, cloves and salt. If not baking immediately, cover and refrigerate for up to twenty-four hours.

To bake: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F.

Pour the filling into the crust. Bend thin strips of aluminum foil around the edge of the pie plate, covering any exposed crust to prevent over-browning. Bake for about one hour and fifteen minutes, or until the center is set. It will still be jiggly, like gelatin, but the top will begin to color slightly and a knife inserted in the center will come out moist but clean.

Remove the pie from the oven, remove the foil strips from the crust, and place the pie on a wire rack to cool at least partially. Serve immediately, or cool completely, cover and refrigerate for up to one day. Slice into eight wedges and serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream, if desired.

Makes one 9-inch pie, or eight servings

Note: You can substitute an unbaked, store-bought, refrigerated single (9-inch) pie crust for the gingersnap crust. Fit the pastry into a nine-inch pie plate, cover with foil, and place dried beans, rice or specially-bought pie weights on top of the foil, to keep the pie from puffing up. Partially bake the pie in a preheated 425 F oven for ten to twelve minutes, until firm but still pale. Proceed to fill and bake the pie as directed.

Marialisa Calta developed this recipe for “Al Roker’s Hassle Free Holiday Cookbook”, (Scribner, 2003). The crust was created by cook and baker-extraordinaire Carolyn Casner of Montpelier.

Comments are closed.