Answer Man

Turkey took backseat to other fowl and food at first Thanksgiving

A colonial English woman prepares pompion (pumpkin) by the fireside at the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. The pumpkin would have been stewed. It was a staple, along with squash, of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, and likely would have part of the Thanksgiving feast for 150 at the settlement in 1621.
A colonial English woman prepares pompion (pumpkin) by the fireside at the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass. The pumpkin would have been stewed. It was a staple, along with squash, of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, and likely would have part of the Thanksgiving feast for 150 at the settlement in 1621. AP

Q: My wife and I were planning our Thanksgiving Day menu the other day when the discussion turned to that historic first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621. Could you tell us what they ate and how they cooked it? I want to have salmon but my wife doesn’t think the Pilgrims ate it then.

T.G., of Belleville

A: They may not have had green bean casserole, cranberry sauce or even pumpkin pie, but it sounds as though the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians still shared enough food to leave some of them needing Tums by the end of the three-day gala. Although detailed information is scant, we do have this from Edward Winslow’s letter written to a friend back in England:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so we might rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The four in one day killed as much fowl as served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among 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 ... ”

There was also this from William Bradford, the plantation’s governor:

“And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”

But for the exact details of the feast, you’ll have to rely on the educated guesses of Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at the Plimouth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass. She developed her theories after poring through old cookbooks and descriptions of period gardens, along with studying archaeological remains such as pollen samples, which provide clues to what was grown 400 years ago. Here is a summary of her findings:

Unlike today, turkey likely was not the centerpiece. Although wild turkeys played a part, she says goose or duck may have been the bird of choice — along with swan and the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

“Passenger pigeons were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” Wall told Smithsonian Magazine in 2011. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

Small birds were roasted on a spit while larger birds were boiled, although Wall suspects some were roasted and boiled, in either order.

“I think some birds — in a lot of recipes you see this — were boiled first, then roasted to finish them off,” she said. “Or things are roasted first and then boiled. The early roasting gives them nicer flavor, sort of caramelizes them on the outside and makes the broth darker.”

But since the feast continued for three days, the Pilgrims wound up with sort of the same problem we do — leftovers.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day, that broth thickened with grain to make a pottage.”

She says the birds even might have been stuffed, but it wouldn’t be dressing that most of us would recognize. Instead of bread (which would have had to have been made from maize), the Pilgrims probably would have used a mix of onions and herbs or perhaps even shelled chestnuts. In addition, your choice of salmon doesn’t sound that fishy for the holiday, although Wall says the revelers’ choices would have been lobster, clams, mussels and eel.

The side dishes, however, are a real guess. Wall says the Wampanoag had a “varied and extremely good diet” that included chestnuts, walnuts and beechnuts along with beans, flint corn (their staple crop), squash and pumpkin. Almost as soon as they arrived, the Pilgrims were shown how to plant gardens that featured turnips, carrots, onions and garlic. But there would have been no butter or wheat flour for pies, and there would be no mention of boiling cranberries and sugar for another 50 years.

“So what are they putting on instead?” Wall asked rhetorically. “I think meat, meat and more meat.”

And to drink? I hope you weren’t counting on a fine pinot noir or chardonnay. While there may have been a bit of beer, it wouldn’t have gone far for the 150 people in attendance. Instead, they likely washed it all down with water, Wall said.

The Thanksgiving feast as we know it did not emerge until the mid-19th century, Wall said. That’s when, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday after a 35-year campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. During her long drive, Hale printed countless Thanksgiving recipes in Godey’s along with nearly a dozen cookbooks.

“She is really planting this idea in the heads of lots of women that this is something they should want to do,” Wall said. “So when there finally is a national day of Thanksgiving, there is a whole body of women who are ready for it, who know what to do because she told them. A lot of the food that we think of — roast turkey with sage dressing, creamed onions, mashed turnips, even some of the mashed potato dishes, which were kind of exotic then — are there.”

Hope your holiday is as festive.

Today’s trivia

The movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” was loosely based on the experiences of what real disc jockey?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: General Motors introduced the Hydramatic, thought to be the first true automatic transmission, in 1940. The company was going to put it in Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, but decided to limit it to the Olds. (In case it was a flop, they didn’t want to scar the Cadillac name.) The cost? Initially, $57 — or $963 in today’s dollars.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer