We can get too caught up in discussing what they [the Pilgrims and Wampanoag] had to eat, but it is worth noting that almost nothing we associate with a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu. That generalization starts with the main course. From Edward Winslow’s account of the feast it is clear that they had some kind of “fowl,” but nowhere does he refer to turkey specifically. Certainly there were turkeys around. Bradford remembered that there was a “great store of wild turkeys” as winter approached, and later visitors to Plymouth often made similar observations. But there were also eagles, pigeons, and partridges, as well as “swarms and multitudes” of waterfowl: geese, ducks, swans, herons, and cranes.
And the waterfowl were incomparably easier to catch. When he visited Plymouth a few years later, an agent of the Dutch West India Company described the wild turkeys that he hunted there as having “very long legs” that enabled them to run “extraordinarily fast.” Even “when one has deprived them of the power of flying,” he marveled, “they yet run so fast that we cannot catch them unless their legs are hit also.” In contrast, in his opinion the “great many geese” were “easy to shoot, inasmuch as they congregate together in such large flocks.”
His Pilgrim hosts surely agreed, for their matchlock muskets were so long and heavy that they typically used tripod-like “stands” to support the barrel while they waited for something edible to cross their field of fire. Given the flocks of ducks and geese that descended each autumn on the area’s numerous lakes and ponds, the four men that Governor Bradford sent “on fowling” likely concealed themselves at the water’s edge and then blasted away. It was less sporting than chasing roadrunner-like turkeys through the woods, but undoubtedly more efficient.
To complement the game birds that the hunters brought back, the Pilgrims may have added fresh fish, mussels and clams, and perhaps eels, which could be caught in September “with small labor.” It was Squanto who had taught the Pilgrims how to catch the wrigglers from the creek and river beds. (In an impressive display, Squanto dug them out with his feet and caught them with his bare hands, and in a few hours had as many as he could lift.) To the hungry Pilgrims they were a delicacy; a visitor two years later described them as “passing sweet, fat and wholesome, having no taste at all of the mud.”
The “trimmings,” which were less plentiful, would have included Indian corn (ground and used to make porridge or “succotash”) as well as what the Pilgrims called “sallet herbs”: vegetables from their gardens such as collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach, and cabbage. (If you’re striving for authenticity, try serving turnips and eel next Thanksgiving.) There would have been no sweet potatoes, which were not native to North America and largely unavailable in England except among the very wealthy. Cranberry sauce would have been missing as well, since the sugar so vital to the dish was unavailable. Nor, sad to say, was there any pumpkin pie. The Pilgrims lacked the butter and flour for the pie crust and faced the added problem of having no ovens for baking. Everything they ate would have been boiled or roasted.
As we imagine them enjoying this banquet—heavy on poultry and fish, light on vegetables and sweets—remember also that the buildings the Pilgrims had erected were tiny, that tables and even chairs were scarce, that knives were rare and that forks were nonexistent. (The latter were available in England by this time but little used among common folk, who dismissed them as a “foppish pretension.”) In our mind’s eye, then, we should picture an outdoor feast in which almost everyone was sitting on the ground and eating with their hands—more like a picnic or cookout than the formal domestic scene we have come to associate with the holiday.