The First Thanksgiving Day

No Pumpkin Pie, No Cranberry Sauce, No Turkey?

What you don’t know about the first Thanksgiving may surprise you.

The only written account of the first Thanksgiving dinner was a letter written by colonist Edward Winslow to his friend in England in late 1621. History scholars have scoured this correspondence to try to accurately forge an account of the true Thanksgiving meal. The vision of the feast this letter and history form is far from how it is traditionally replicated in modern America.

Foods That Were Not Served at the First Thanksgiving

  • Turkey – Turkey was often eaten by both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims but is not specifically mentioned in Winslows’ letter. The account mentions “wild fowl” only and could have referred to duck or geese instead of wild turkey.
  • Popcorn – There was no popcorn, corn was prevalent but was not popped.
  • Cranberry Sauce – Fifty years after 1621 there is mention of a cranberry sauce for use with meat in English recipes. Prior to this time sugar, a necessary ingredient in cranberry sauce was an incredibly expensive import. Both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would add whole cranberries as an ingredient to add tartness, however cranberry sauce itself would not appear until the 1670’s.
  • Potatoes – White potatoes were virtually unknown in England at the time of the Thanksgiving feast, they were only raised by specialized botanists at the time and were not a part of the English diet. Sweet potatoes were, in the early 1600’s, imported into England from Spain and were used only by the ultra wealthy for their purported aphrodisiac properties.
  • Pumpkin Pie – There were no readily available ingredients for the crust of a pumpkin pie at the time. Pumpkin and squash were included in the feast but served as vegetables only. After 1621, pumpkin dessert recipes included pumpkin pieces sliced similar to apples only.
  • Apples – Apples were not present in 1621 in Plymouth.

Foods Included in the Original Thanksgiving Feast

In addition to the wild fowl, pumpkin and squash mentioned above, the following foods were certainly abundant and most likely were included in the “harvest” celebration:

  • Fish
  • Lobsters
  • Eel
  • Mussels
  • Oysters
  • Corn
  • Parsnips
  • Collards
  • Turnips
  • Spinach
  • Onions
  • Dried Beans
  • Dried Blueberries
  • Grapes
  • Nuts

1621 Thanksgiving Meal Details

  • The celebration lasted for three days, not one, and consisted of intermittent feasting and entertainment (games and shooting of muskets).
  • It was most likely held in October, not November.
  • There is no evidence that the Indians (Wampanoag) were explicitly invited.
  • It was not called “Thanksgiving”. It was a “harvest festival”.
  • It did not become an annual event.

“by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” – Edward Winslow – December, 11, 1621

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