It's not everyday that you get to meet an expert on colonial foodways—especially not one dressed in a historically accurate pilgrim outfit.
But that's exactly what happened to me at the museum recently. Colonial Foodways Culinarian Kathleen Wall spoke with museum visitors about colonial life and food, so I took the opportunity to ask her five questions about how pilgrims celebrated the harvest. Since 1980, Wall has been on staff at Plimoth Planatation, a Smithsonian Affiliate. She blogs about pudding and stewed pompions at Pilgrim Seasonings.
1. What are the top food myths about what was on the table for the "first" Thanksgiving?
Myth 1: Cranberry sauce. There might have been cranberries (but a berry by other name is still pretty not-so-sweet). They have lots of other names in English: Fen-berries, Fen-grapes; Marish-Berries, Marish-worts, Marish –whortleberries; Mosse-berries, Moore-berries, and kranebeere in Dutch... you get the picture.
Myth 2: Turkey was the centerpiece. Turkey was good, turkeys in Plymouth area were plentiful, big, 'fat and sweet,' but they weren't the only bird on the table. Ducks, geese, quails, pigeons (passenger pigeons, now extinct) and even swan could have been there, as well as venison.
2. What did they really eat at the harvest celebration in 1621 (the phrase folks at Plimoth Plantation prefer to "Thanksgiving")?
Corn (for flour for bread and grits for porridge) and venison; wild fowl (usually considered waterfowl) and turkeys. No potatoes, sweet or otherwise. No green bean casserole. No pie—neither apple nor pumpkin.
3. How do we know what was on the menu then?
Mostly we don’t. Quotes from two contemporary accounts:
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation, Morison ed. p.90.: "And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion, which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports." [You can read the full historical text.]
Mourt’s, Applewood, p. 82.: "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 and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."
4. Who did the dishes?
Let's just file that under 'A Woman’s Work Is NEVER Done'
5. If I want to serve a pilgrim-inspired dish this Thanksgiving, what do you recommend?
Pottage is a great dish for day TWO of Thanksgiving!
The pottage recipe for Stewed Turkey with Herbs and Onions below is reproduced by permission.
Stewed Turkey with Herbs and Onions4 pounds turkey parts (thighs and legs work well for this recipe)
1 teaspoon salt
2 large onions, sliced into ¼ inch rings
Bundle of fresh herbs, tied (any combination of sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, and savory), or 2 tablespoons dried
⅓ cup red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons (¼ stick) salted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6-8 1-inch-thick slices of hearty bread, cut in half and toasted or fried until browned
Rinse the turkey pieces and place them in a pot large enough to accommodate them. Cover with cold water and add the salt. Cover the pot and bring the contents to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the temperature to keep the broth at a low simmer for 1 hour. Periodically, skim any froth that rises to the surface.
Remove the turkey pieces and set aside to cool. Raise the heat until the broth comes to a boil. Continue boiling, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by half. This will take about 1 hour.
Add the onions, herbs, vinegar, butter, sugar, peppercorns, and cloves. Simmer for another 20 minutes, or until the onions are soft. While the broth is simmering, cut the cooled turkey into serving pieces.
Before serving, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Place the meat in the broth and let simmer gently for just 1 minute. Pour the turkey and sauce into a serving bowl. Pass the toasted bread slices to serve as a base for the turkey and to sop up the sauce.
Recipe source: Curtin, Kathleen; Oliver, Sandra L., and Plimoth Plantation. Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History from Pilgrim to Pumpkin Pie. New York, NY: Clarkson Potter, 2005
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the museum’s New Media Department. If you’re still craving more food history, explore Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, which opens on November 20.