November 23, 2004

The Truth Behind Thanksgiving

Snapshots In My Time, Of My Time.....Hauntings.

"Pass the deer and eel please!" Are these words you would expect to hear around your Thanksgiving dinner table?

When most people think of a traditional U.S. Thanksgiving dinner, they think of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and maybe apple pie. The original American Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, however, was very different.

In the fall of 1621, 52 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans came together in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for meals celebrating the harvest. Although Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until 1863, most Americans consider the Plymouth feast as the first Thanksgiving.

The food that these early Americans shared was not what most people would expect.

Pilgrims and Native Americans probably ate turkey. Mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and apple pie, however, were not on the menu.

In 1621, potatoes were not part of the Pilgrims' diet. According to Kathleen Curtin, most Pilgrims had never heard of potatoes—potatoes grew only in South America until the late 1600s. Curtin is a food historian at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum in Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims and Native Americans may have eaten cranberries, but certainly not cranberry sauce. Sugar, an important ingredient in cranberry sauce, had probably not yet traveled to the New World. According to Curtin, "It would be 50 years before an Englishman mentioned boiling this New England berry with sugar."

But the Pilgrims must have eaten apple pie? Surprisingly, they did not. Apples do not naturally grow in North America. The fruit didn't come to the United States until years later.

So what, then, did people eat at the first Thanksgiving?

The meals and festivities lasted for three days. During that time, the early Americans ate a lot of food. They probably had deer, clams, dried berries, corn, wild turkeys, and fish such as cod, sea bass, and eels.

And the meat did not come in packages from the grocery store.

"Animals were often cooked with heads and feet still attached. The 'humbles' [what we would call guts] were cooked and eaten as well," Carolyn Travers, a researcher at Plimoth Plantation, explained.

This Thanksgiving, as you dig in, be thankful you're eating turkey and pie—and not baked guts!
National Geographic


  1. An additional tidbit about the way turkeys were cooked back then... You mentioned "humbles" as the innards of a bird. Frequently they were cooked up and served as leftovers, or eaten by those of lower status while the meat of the animal was reserved for more important folk. Often these wer eserved in pie form. That's where the phrase "to eat humble pie" comes from.

  2. thanks brian...that was something i did not know!