What was on the menu at the First Thanksgiving Feast?

  • The First Thanksgiving, held in November, 1621, was a three day feast shared between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. There was such a bountiful harvest of corn that year that Plymouth Colony’s Governor William Bradford invited Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe to join in the celebration.

  • Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal. Historical records show that the original feast included venison from the five deer brought by the Wampanoags, plus ducks, geese and passenger pigeons (now extinct). Wild turkeys were perhaps served, yet were not the wildfowl of choice. Eels, smoked fish and shellfish were also on the menu.
  • Traditional mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes were absent at this first celebration. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean. Neither had made it to North America by this time.

  • The wildfowl weren’t stuffed with traditional bread stuffing. Maize (Indian corn), not wheat, was available. Yet the Pilgrims stuffed their birds with chestnuts, onions and herbs. Maize was cooked into bread for the feast.
  • History documents the first cranberry sauce appearing 50 years later. Perhaps cranberries were available for this first feast, yet no sugar source to create the classic cranberry sauce.
  • The Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims how to grow native crops including the pumpkin. Yet no pumpkin pies at this celebration. Butter and wheat were not available to create the pastry.

How did today’s Thanksgiving feast menu come to be?

  • Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Sarah Josepha Hale, editress of the popular women’s magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, was instrumental in bringing this holiday to recognition. Over the course of 35 years, she petitioned 13 presidents to create this holiday. Lincoln instituted Thanksgiving as a way to unite the country during the time of the Civil War.
  • During these 35 years, Sarah Hale published menus, recipes and cookbooks for Thanksgiving feasts. When there was finally a national day of Thanksgiving, all the readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book were ready to celebrate. They could create a Thanksgiving feast for their families with this vast array of new recipes, many like those we have today.
  • Godey’s Lady’s Book published this Thanksgiving menu, described as a meal “fit for a king”:
    • Roast Turkey with Sage Dressing
    • Boiled Fowls with Celery Sauce
    • Stewed Goose
    • Oyster Cakes
    • Boiled Ham
    • Cranberry Sauce
    • Winter Squash
    • Mashed Turnips
    • Creamed Onions
    • Hot Cole Slaw
    • Sweet Potato Pudding
    • Pumpkin Pudding
    • Baked Lemon Pudding

Whatever your Thanksgiving menu, enjoy this special holiday celebration with family and friends. Happy Thanksgiving!