Thanksgiving, as you likely know, dates back to the original celebration of the autumn harvest that occurred within the first year of the settlers’ arrival to the United States (around 1621). Though this celebration hails all the way back to the 1600s, it wasn’t considered an official American holiday until 1863.
Most people assume that what we eat today at this nap-inducing feast is a direct reflection of what the pilgrims ate at their first Thanksgiving dinner. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although pumpkin pie, vegetables, and fruits were all components of the first Thanksgiving dinners, our modern staples–like the turkey and creamy mashed potatoes–didn’t come along until many years later.
Why not? The foods served at the first Thanksgiving meals were foods that were easily grown by the colonists. The crops grown in early America weren’t so different from those that are popular today, but many of their methods of cooking them have changed–as you might expect–quite drastically.
The first settlers may have eaten fruits such as blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, and cranberries, all of which grew in vast quantities in the wilds of North America. However, cranberry sauce was most likely not a dinner-time staple (and especially not the form-fitting canned varieties to which we are now accustomed). Very little sugar was available in the colonies at this time, so cranberry sauce didn’t become an accompaniment for meats until about fifty or sixty years later.
Most berries eaten at the first Thanksgiving grow wild, especially in areas that have been recently cut or burned. If you aren’t lucky enough to have berries growing wild, most varieties can be easily cultivated. Typically, you can plant full bushes or bare-root plants in the spring. Most berries bear fruit in the summer or fall, and don’t need much hands-on attention. Some types of fruits (including raspberries) can even be grown indoors.
Pumpkins and other squashes
Pumpkins were a popular vegetable in the early colonies. Indigenous squashes were prized for their ability to repel furry pests and provide high-calorie, nutritionally-dense sustenance. Pumpkin pie was likely served at the first Thanksgiving, but would have taken an entirely different form. Early settlers usually hollowed out pumpkins and filled the shells with milk, honey, and various spices to create a custard. Then, the gourds would be roasted in hot ashes.
Pumpkins and other squashes should be planted as early in the spring as possible (usually as soon as the danger of frost has passed) and grow well from seed (no transplanting necessary). They grow best in areas that receive warm summers with cool autumns, and although the vines die back with the first frost, the fruits will last for several weeks. You may even be able to cultivate miniature pumpkins indoors, but it’s not recommended for larger varieties, as their vines like to spread.
Corn was likely served at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The harvest would have been plentiful, but it would not have been served in the way we are accustomed to now. Corn was usually removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and shaped into a thick mush or porridge. Occasionally, this was also sweetened with a molasses, making it more like a dessert than a vegetable staple!
Early settlers also grew leeks, wild onions, beans, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, carrots, and various herbs. These hardy vegetables all likely had a place on the Thanksgiving table as well.
Depending on your hardiness zone, all or most of these plants can be easily grown at home. Keep in mind that drainage, water, nutrient content, and sunlight requirements will all vary for these plants. Many, such as tomatoes, beans, and carrots, can be grown indoors, provided that you give them plenty of loose, fertile soil.
Do you like to imbibe during the Thanksgiving holiday? You may not be too different from our ancestors. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, some suspect that, because the colonists had grown a few acres of barley, they may have also downed some beer for the holiday.
You can grow barley and hops on your property, too. Although these take more time to cultivate (and beer takes a while to ferment), they make a nice addition to an otherwise prosperous homestead.
What has changed?
Obviously, no turkey was included on this list. Although this compilation focused specifically on crops, it should be noted that, regardless, turkey was not served at the first Thanksgiving dinners. Instead, more readily available fare such as waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, and clams was likely served as an alternative.
Potatoes, too, had no place at the first Thanksgiving tables. Although Europeans were familiar with–and growing–potatoes by the early 1600s, very few settlers were aware of this new tuber-eating trend.
Although our dinner tables are adorned in a more sophisticated fashion these days, there’s no arguing that the colonists paved the way for one of America’s most beloved holidays. Though their fare was simple, it no doubt was made all the more delicious by their gratitude for a bountiful harvest. If you choose to grow these plants as well, you’ll no doubt share that sentiment as well, regardless of how you choose to prepare your food–or even if you neglect the turkey.