While thousands of Americans will sit down to a feast of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and other assorted fixings this year, the first Thanksgiving celebrated by Pilgrims and Indians was a more modest affair.
Venison and cod, lobster and sea bass, squash, beans and artichokes probably comprised at least part of the historic peace-feast between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrim settlers 367 years ago.In the fall of 1621, the 52 men, women and children who survived the first year in the New World after leaving England on the Mayflower decided to hold a celebratory feast. Fifty others died of frostbite, pneumonia and starvation. Just four adult housewives survived the first winter.
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors," Edwin Winslow, a Pilgrim, wrote in a first-hand report of the feast.
The three-day secular celebration was held sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, according to historians at Plimoth Plantation, a Pilgrim village re-creation in Plymouth.
Two primary references from the first Thanksgiving remain, including a diary kept by Gov. William Bradford. They show that the feast included cod, sea bass, wildfowl such as geese, ducks and swans, wild turkeys, corn meal and five deer brought by the Indians, about 90 of whom attended.
The turkeys, though, were dry and stringy, and the meat was probably boiled. Some of the vegetables were eaten raw but most were boiled. Cranberries, plentiful in New England, also were served.
Beer was the liquid of choice, even for children, since the water was considered unreliable. Among the desserts served were pudding and ashcakes, cornmeal cakes baked in ashes.
There was no cider, because apple and other fruit trees would take years to bear fruit after planting. No potatoes, no corn on the cob.
The Pilgrims and Indians broke a variety of breads at cloth-covered tables sitting on benches; some of the important men had chairs. There were some knives and forks, but no spoons. Hands were the utensils of choice.
The feast was formalized under President George Washington, who set aside Thursday, Nov. 26, 1790, as the first officials day of Thanksgiving for "the many signal favors of Almighty God." But it wasn't until 1863 that Thanksgiving Day became an annual holiday, decreed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
These days, the town of Plymouth stages events to commemorate the first Thanksgiving, including a public dinner at Memorial Hall that normally attracts about 2,000 people.