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Eat like a pilgrim


What would have been included on that first Thanksgiving spread? Here are five staples historians agree would have been available at the time.

Think your Thanksgiving preparations are stressful? At the first Thanksgiving—a three-day festival and feast in 1621 complete with games and revelry—it was up to four women to cook meals for roughly 50 settlers who came together to celebrate the first fall harvest.

Although it’s debatable exactly when the first recognized “Thanksgiving” was held, modern history traditionally compares the holiday’s fare with the 1621 feast that took place at Plymouth Plantation in what is now Massachusetts. There are only two surviving documents in existence that can tell us what foods were part of the celebration shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag, a group of Native American tribes that were in North America long before the arrival of Europeans and still survive today.

What would have been included in that first Thanksgiving spread? Here are five staples historians agree would have been available at the time.


Turkey might not have been the centerpiece of the meal as it is today. Instead, goose or duck might have been the meat of choice. One historian told Smithsonian magazine that passenger pigeons, which are now extinct, also would have been abundant at the time.

Small birds were often spit-roasted, while larger birds were boiled. The birds possibly were stuffed not with bread, but with onion and herbs. Because it was a three-day celebration, it’s also possible that birds were roasted one day and the remains were thrown in a pot and boiled to make broth the next day.


Edward Winslow documented the pilgrim feast. In his recount, he noted, “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”

Eels and shellfish

Not far from the coast, early colonists would have had access to local seafood. This would have included mussels, lobster, bass, clams, eels and oysters.

Native crops

Early settlers learned how to cultivate crops from Native Americans. Potatoes would not have been part of the first Thanksgiving as they had yet infiltrated North America. Instead, other plants such as turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and pumpkin could have made their way to the table.

Pumpkin pie

Yes, pumpkin pie has probably been part of the Thanksgiving celebration since the beginning. No pie crust though. There was no butter or wheat flour. At the first Thanksgiving, the settlers hadn’t even yet constructed an oven for baking. Some accounts say that the colonists may have hollowed out pumpkins, filled the shells with milk (probably goat’s milk), honey and spices to make a custard, then roasted the pumpkins whole in hot ashes.

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