11 foods missing from first Thanksgiving

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The story of first Thanksgiving has been mythologized in countless media, but the hard facts of the time are limited. Almost all of the information historians have about the event comes from a letter written by Plymouth Plantation Colonel Edward Winslow in December 1621. He wrote of a harvest feast that the pilgrims shared with the indigenous Wampanoag people for three days in late fall. The meal wouldn’t have sounded familiar to people who associate Thanksgiving with a casserole of green beans, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallow, and pumpkin pie: Dishes on the menu including venison and wild poultry.

We don’t know all of the dishes served at this celebration, but we do know that many traditional Thanksgiving dishes were probably (or in some cases, definitely) missing. When you sit down for dinner on the fourth Thursday in November, be thankful for those foods that weren’t at a supermarket in 1621.

1. Green bean casserole

Much of the merchandise associated with Thanksgiving was not present at the Pilgrims’ dinner table. This probably includes green beans, and the green bean casserole certainly didn’t make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The recipe for baked green beans with cream of mushroom and topped with fried onions was first developed by Campbell’s employee Dorcas Reilly in 1955 for the backs of soup cans. Compared to many “traditional” Thanksgiving dishes, the green bean casserole is quite modern.

2. Pumpkin pie

The pumpkin pie wasn’t served as a dessert on the first Thanksgiving, nor any pie, for that matter. Pilgrims probably didn’t have access to many of the things needed to make a pie crust, including butter, flour, and ovens. But that doesn’t mean pumpkin was entirely excluded from the meal. The gourd is native to the Americas and cooks at the first Thanksgiving maybe have it roasted whole or simmered in a saucepan.

3. Sauce

No flour also meant no sauce to accompany game and waterfowl on the table. While it’s possible that the cooks kept the drips from the meat, it wouldn’t have been the traditional, thickened sauce we know today. One sauce that was probably on the menu was green sauce, a condiment that was made by cooking products like squash, onions and spinach in a thick porridge. Turkey gravy has never looked so appealing.

4. Cranberry sauce

Another missing ingredient in the pilgrims’ pantry was sugar. Without it, they couldn’t have cooked the cranberries that grew in Massachusetts into a sweet sauce. The Wampanoag were known to harvest the berries of the region cranberry bogs and dry them for use in dishes all winter. However, there were no cranberry bogs in the immediate vicinity of the Plymouth Plantation, so the First Thanksgiving may have run out of fruit, in the form of gravy or whatever.

5. Mashed potatoes

Potatoes are from South America, and they hadn’t yet landed in New England by the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. That’s probably for the best, because what good is mashed potatoes if you can’t not turn it into a volcano of sauce?

6. Apple pie

Without the pie crust, the apple pie would have been missing from the inaugural Thanksgiving dinner as well. The main ingredient was also missing. Apples still hadn’t made the trip to New England from Europe, but that would change soon. In the mid-1600s, cider was the drink of choice for settlers.

7. Wheat buns

Pilgrims had no wheat flour for baking traditional bread rolls in 1621. Instead, the first Thanksgiving featured corn bread from the Wampanoag kitchen.

8. Macaroni and cheese

This Southern Thanksgiving staple was not served when the Puritans and Wampanoags sat down to dinner in 1621. In addition to the lack of ingredients for making pasta, macaroni and cheese weren’t eaten in America at that time. Thomas Jefferson is credited with popularizing the dish in the United States in the 19th century after he first tried it in France.

9. Turkey

That’s right, the food that has become synonymous with Thanksgiving was probably not served at the original feast; birds were not common game at that time. We know that the diners engaged in a kind of wild poultry: Ducks, geese, swans, and carrier pigeons are all more likely possibilities than turkeys.

10. Sweet potato casserole

Sweet potatoes had not yet arrived in New England via the Caribbean in 1621. Mini marshmallows were also not available on the Plymouth plantation.

11. Bread stuffing

Modern stuffing or dressing is made from a mixture of cubed bread, spices, vegetables, and sometimes meat. The mixture that stuffed the cooked poultry for the first Thanksgiving would not have included any bread. Onions and nuts were the main ingredients of the breadless stuffing that pilgrims enjoyed.


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