Unfortunately, we cannot be certain. The Pilgrims did not print menus for their guests. After all, none of their Indian guests could read, nor could very many of the Pilgrims themselves. Most were illiterate. Luckily, several colonists who were literate wrote personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and those accounts have survived. These accounts give a few hints as to the menu.
While 103 people landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620, about half of them died during the first winter. Those who survived managed to plant crops the following spring and reaped a good harvest during the summer and fall. The first Thanksgiving at Plimoth Colony was held to celebrate that harvest.
William Bradford wrote,
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). 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 the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports."Edward Winslow wrote,
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. 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 we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."The Thanksgiving feast lasted three whole days, providing enough food for 53 pilgrims and 90 Indians. While we do not know the exact menu, historians have studied the food supply of the time and have been able to guess the items that likely appeared on the menu those three days.
The Pilgrims and the Indians obviously dined on venison. Winslow wrote, "They went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation." Turkey also was on the menu. As Winslow stated, "They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week." The word "fowl" probably included turkeys although there may have been ducks, geese, swans, and other birds as well.
The turkeys probably were a bit skinnier than today's Butterball turkeys, and probably had a stronger flavor as well. I live about 70 miles from Plymouth and can tell you that today's descendants of the wild turkeys that escaped the Pilgrims certainly look big and fat. They are also plentiful in this area. We can guess that the same was true in 1621.
The turkeys and most other meat dishes undoubtedly were roasted on a spit over an open fire. Someone must have been assigned to turn the spit frequently to make sure the food was not burnt on one side. Gravy was unknown.
The other foods at the table probably included fish, clams, berries, apples, dried fruit, pumpkin, squash, turnips, peas, onions, beans and other vegetables.
Some accounts state that lobster was on the menu, although I have my doubts. It seems unlikely when so many other items were already on the menu. In 1621, lobster was considered to be a "trash fish" and typically was eaten only by the poor, the starving, or by indentured servants. This makes it unlikely that lobster would be served at a feast celebrating a plentiful harvest.
Indeed, lobsters were used as fertilizer to help grow corn; the Pilgrims and the Indians would plant a few corn seeds and then throw a lobster into the ground beside the seeds before covering all of that with soil. What a change we have nearly 400 years later! Lobster is now a major export of the Plymouth area with prices that are far too high for the poorer citizens of today.
Pumpkin pie wasn't on the menu in 1621 because there were no ovens for baking, but the pilgrims probably did eat boiled pumpkin. Due to the diminishing supply of flour, there was no bread of any kind.
Cranberries existed as wild plants in the Plymouth area at the time, and it is possible that the Pilgrims were aware of the food value of these plants. However, cranberries were largely ignored until American Revolutionary War veteran Henry Hall became the first to farm cranberries in the nearby Cape Cod town of Dennis around 1816. Aside from their food value, the Pilgrims would have been eating unsweetened cranberries, a less than tasty sensation without benefit of sugar.
Salt was readily available in Plimoth Colony with the ocean being only a few yards away. Pepper was commonly used in England but probably not available in Plimoth Colony at the time.
Some sugar was transported on the Mayflower but probably had been consumed before the feast of 1621. Sugar could have been made from maple syrup but it is doubtful that the Pilgrims learned these skills the first year. Maple sap has to be collected early in the spring when there is still snow on the ground. In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims were too weak from disease and starvation to organize efforts to tap maple trees and collect the sap.
The list of beverages served at the three-day feast was not recorded. The Pilgrims had no tea or coffee, as those imported items were missing due to a lack of trade routes at the time.
Beer undoubtedly was served. As the Pilgrims set out for America the previous year, they brought a considerable amount of this beverage with them for the voyage (reportedly more than 28,617 liters = 7,560 gallons). An entry in the diary of a Mayflower passenger explains the unplanned landing at Plymouth Rock: "We could not now take time for further search...our victuals being much spent, especially our beer..."
Once settled, the Pilgrims undoubtedly followed the English customs of the time with most families brewing beer in large quantities. They served it at virtually all functions, including ordinations, funerals, and regular Sabbath meals.
Plenty of clear water was available in the New World but the Pilgrims were largely ignorant of the need for sanitation. As a result, it is believed that many of the wells in Plimoth Colony were polluted. Admittedly, this is all conjecture, since no one today knows for sure.
Serving meals in the seventeenth century was very different from serving today. People weren't served their meals individually. Foods were placed on the table and then people took the food from the table and ate it. In fact, this "family style" of dining was similar to what most families do today.
Pilgrims didn't eat in courses as we do today. All of the different types of foods were placed on the table at the same time, and people ate in any order they chose. Meat dishes, puddings, and sweets were all served at the same time. Desserts were eaten at the same time as the meats and other dishes.
Canning and freezing had not yet been invented. With no method of preserving food, other than salting food for preservation, the Pilgrims ate whatever was fresh. It is unlikely that they ate corn, other than perhaps dried corn. The corn crop had come and gone before the autumn feast. Late season vegetables, such as turnips, onions, pumpkin and squash, certainly would have been available. However, the meal was probably mostly meat, fish, and fowl, with few vegetables.
We can also imagine the table manners of those who dined. The Pilgrims did not use silverware nicely arranged on linen napkins. Napkins were in use although they were usually simple pieces of cloth, often rags. The Pilgrims wiped their hands on the cloth napkins, which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Linen was unknown. We can imagine that the Indian guests probably wiped their hands and mouths on whatever was available, such as on the back of the hand or on clothing.
The Pilgrims also did not use forks at the table. As Englishmen and Englishwomen, they had no knowledge of forks. The fork was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings about his Italian travels only ten years earlier (1611). Very few English people had even heard of a fork by 1621. For many years the fork was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation and was never seen in English homes. Some writers of the Roman Catholic Church expressly disapproved of its use: "God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks — his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metallic forks for them when eating."
While the Pilgrims were not Catholics, we can assume they used the same eating customs as most everyone else in England at the time: they scooped up meat, fish, and boiled peas alike with their fingers. It was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain, with the United States following soon after.
Knives were used at the table but were not the same knives that we think of as silverware. The knives of 1621 were multi-purpose tools: any one knife might be used to cut a tree limb, to dissect a deer, or to cut meat at the table.In short, the Pilgrims had a great meal by their standards. They and their Indian guests ate well for three days. That must have been a great joy for the 53 hardy souls who had watched half of their group die of malnourishment and disease only a few months earlier.
Their table manners didn't match today's standards, but they undoubtedly didn't mind. Their diet was high in protein, especially red meats. They undoubtedly had high cholesterol meals, especially in the months when fresh fruits and vegetables were not available. However, their diet probably met the needs of these people who led rugged, outdoor lifestyles. They had little fear of heart attacks; the more common cause of death was malnutrition and disease.
The Pilgrims of 1621 undoubtedly were delighted with their feast but I don't think I would want to join them.