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Thanksgiving is a cultural moment of blessings for us and the pilgrim’s

The original Thanksgiving feast represents blessings for the Pilgrims. The food for both was a feast, drastically different menus from our time. The Pilgrims thankful for those who survived the hardships and hopeful they are better prepared than the previous winter. Their meal consisted of what they had available to them which differs from our meals complete by a shopping list we gather at the grocery store.

As I look forward or reflect on Thanksgiving warm thoughts fill my mind.  Family and friends gathering around a huge table or 2 -3 tables depending on who is the host this year.  Laughter and reminiscing fill the air as the warm aroma of golden crisp roast turkey skin fill the air. My family would typically have turkey stuffed with sausage stuffing.  The ideal, 18 – 22 lb. bird will be accompanied with side dishes of mashed potato, yellow turnip, green beans, creamed onions, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes, oven toasted rolls, lots and lots of gravy and cranberry relish. This menu is the whitewashed version of the original Thanksgiving which doesn’t resemble this in most ways.

The cranberry relish I like is composed of fresh tart cranberries, see the recipe. While they likely had cranberries, they didn’t have much sugar available to them. Cranberries have become commonplace in juice, dried, sauce or as a component of other recipes.
The Pilgrims wouldn’t have seen them this way at the time of the first Thanksgiving. Dessert will consist of a compilation of pies, apple, pumpkin, blueberry and mincemeat pies. This mincemeat pie, of British origins, consists of sweet dried fruits and spices that are minced, cooked into a pie filling consistency in between 2 flaky pie crusts. Their dessert would likely have been a corn pudding or something similar. Times were different for them in the very harsh conditions. They had to create everything they had. There were no streets, waterways, plumbing and sewer, homes, stores etc.


Cranberry Relish

This is a fresh wholesome alternative to canned cranberry sauce

  • 1 lb fresh cranberries, washed
  • 2 med oranges, whole
  • 2 cups white granulated sugar (you can use 1 cup if you prefer less sweet)
  1. In a food processor, blend cranberries and navel oranges, sugar, pulse to a coarse relish like consistency.  Refrigerate for 2 – 3 days to fully blend the flavors

The most difficult experience I have ever had on Thanksgiving was getting out of an easy chair.   I have helped at some local food charities giving out a massive number of meals.  Some of those folks you feed there have fallen on hard times.  The difficult times we face don’t compare in scope or degree to the original lives of those celebrating the first Thanksgiving.

When they first arrived in the Massachusetts area, they came ashore after 66 days at sea in November 1620.  They didn’t, however, check in to the holiday inn or any hotels.  They came ashore and needed to set up camp.  They didn’t have power tools, excavators bulldozers, they had to forge nails and tools they would use.   They likely had pickaxes, saws, and shovels, along with tools to build and forge.

Having a plan and being prepared is crucial to minimizing safety issues. I go camping with my son’s local boy scout troop. When we camp we set a destination and have a plan to set up tents in the rain and to camp in whatever weather has been forecasted. The original Pilgrims didn’t have the best time of year to be setting up camp.  These Pilgrims, as hearty and self-sufficient as they were, were lacking our modern day conveniences of weather forecasting, quick travel, easy up shelter and ready access to foods. They were doing more than camp, they were moving in. 

They were building and moving into the home and community they were coming to.  They likely were not prepared for the harsh New England winter they were about to experience. This was evident by the extreme illnesses and deaths to starvation they experienced.   Fortunately, over the winter they became friends with some Indians.  The Indians in the spring taught them to grow corn for the growing season. This corn has become a huge staple in our diets even today.  A Thanksgiving feast for them, following their tragic first winter, was filled with foods that were plentiful for them in the day.  There was likely a solemn appreciation with respect to their fallen family and neighbors and a feeling of hope they were better prepared for this winter.


The Pilgrims would have had to rely on their hands for planting and farming and how the earth yielded fertile soil for the bounty of the crops.  They didn’t as of yet have the ability to freeze or preserve by canning their produce harvest.  They would eat the foods that were most prevalent. Root vegetables would have the ability to hold longer in a root cellar which was an area that may be underground that was a little cooler to extend the life of these vegetables.  Winter squashes such as acorn, butternut, pumpkin as well as turnips purple and yellow would hold longer through the winter.


Fish was readily available because they were so close and the waters were full of them. Plymouth harbor was a good means to safely catch ample fish.  Cod was the big plentiful fish of the day.  Lobster & the crab was also prevalent, probably walking across the beaches, however in these early times they were viewed more like ocean bugs.  Because of the bountiful seafood, these bugs just don’t have the same appeal and it wasn’t necessary.  They would salt the cod to preserve it and smoke it as well.  Shellfish in the form of mussels, clams, and oysters were easily gathered.  Mussels and oysters would be clung to the rocks, while they would have had to dig for clams. Venison was readily available for them as well. Goose and duck were likely more available then turkey.  The turkey would have been wild not like the farm-raised turkeys we eat today. 

In summary, the blessings the Pilgrims shared in the spirit of Thanksgiving is the same as ours. It would have to be stated that they suffered great hardship in comparison to our daily lives. The foods eaten are different from our traditional meal. These foods to them are as wonderful and tasteful as the ones we enjoy each year. This comparison yields to the culture of food and its ability to share a moment of bonding people together in a time where people share space and time.

The first Thanksgiving would have likely consisted of some of the following items:

  • Hearth Baked Bread
  • Watercress
  • Mussels and or Oysters
  • Soup of Leeks
  • Pork
  • Fish, likely cod
  • Venison
  • Goose, Duck, Wild Turkey
  • Pumpkin, boiled
  • Samp (like corn pudding)
  • Cheese and fruit

Some of todays notable Thanksgiving meals

Side Dishes

  • Traditional Bread
  • Chestnut Stuffing
  • Cornbread Stuffing
  • Sausage Stuffing
  • Traditional Yukon Gold Mashed
  • Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
  • Cheddar Mashed
  •   Loaded Mashed Potato
  • Green Beans Almondine
  • Italian Sauteed Green Beans with Bermuda   Onion
  • Mashed Yellow Turnip
  • Whipped Butternut Squash
  • Glazed Carrots
  • Oyster Stew
  • Creamed Onions
  • Pan Gravy
  • Cranberry Orange Relish


  • Roast Turkey

Baked Goods and Desserts

  • Parker House Rolls
  • Apple Pie
  • Blueberry Pie
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Apple Crisp
  • Mincemeat Pie

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