(This post was originally sent as an email to family and friends in 2008.)
I am trying to visualize what that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth was really like. You all have seen illustrations of immaculately dressed Pilgrim families: men, women and children, sitting around neatly set tables outdoors. So where are the Indians? And it was the Pilgrim custom for men to eat first, served by the women (I don't know where the children and adolescents fit in). Indians normally ate sitting on the ground on skins and just used their hands to eat with, and Indian men and women ate together. Some accounts have the Indians joining the Pilgrims at the tables. Did the squaws sit with the braves and Pilgrim men while the Pilgrim women still stood behind? Another question, where did the 53 Pilgrims get enough tables to seat 90 Indians? Pilgrims ate three meals a day, their big meal being at mid-day and their breakfast being leftovers. Indians just ate when they were hungry from continually simmering kettles rather than having meals (that is when they had food). And we know the Pilgrims had beer. Did they share with the Indians?
The accounts by Winslow and Bradford that I sent you yesterday are the only primary sources of information on the First Thanksgiving so everything else that has ever been written about that three-day harvest celebration is second-hand speculation at best. Thus I feel free to make up my own account (with the help of a lot of Googling) and share it with you.
My guess is that it was more like a three-day tailgate party than a sit-down banquet. I would also like to think the Wampanoag women and children were included ( Winslow said "...some nintie men..."). Probably it was a sort of long-running buffet interspersed, as Winslow indicated, with "rejoycing'", " Recreations" and discharge of "Armes". Certainly some prayers of thanksgiving.
Massasoit's hunters went out with their bows and arrows and brought down five deer (probably fat does instead of bucks in rut). They had to have been butchered and roasted outdoors. Did that much venison all get devoured in three days? Probably, there were 143 mouths to feed plus the dogs (the Pigrims had a female Mastiff and a small Spriger Spaniel that survived the Mayflower trip. Did the Indians leave their dogs back at the wigwam with no food for three days?)
In addition to venison the Indians would have contributed corn (as meal and cornbread) and beans and turkeys. Lobster, eels, clams and mussels were plentiful as were fish. Winslow indicated that the four men sent "fowling" were very sucessful. The"fowl" would have been migrating waterfowl; ducks, geese, swans and maybe cranes. They were probably shot on the water. The Pilgrims' "fowling pieces" were muzzle loading, funnel shaped matchlock shotguns, not hardly suitable for shooting birds on the fly like in skeet-shooting. Wild turkeys were very plentiful.
Wild food collected by the Pilgims in the fall season would have included grapes, both red and white, plums and rose hips. Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries would have been gone by then. I think that the huckleberries would have been gone too. Cranberries would have been avilable, but not for cranberry sauce (they had no sugar). Likewise they had pumpkins but no pumpkin pie (not only no sugar, but also no shortening or wheat flour or ovens). They collected walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, acorns and maybe chestnuts. Indians harvested wild onions, wild garlic and watercress to jazz up their diet.
What else did they not have that are part of traditional Thanksgiving menus today? No mashed potatoes. White potatoes were not yet in cultivation anywhere. No yams or sweet potatoes either. Sweet potatoes were rare, thought to be aphrodisiacs, affordable only by the wealthy. No apples or apple sauce. Apples were not native to North America. (Also no ham or bacon. The Pilgrims had no hogs).
So what did they have? They grew corn, onions, garlic, parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbage, pumpkins, squash, beans, sage, thyme and marjoram. Maybe radishes and lettuce. And they had salt and pepper but they didn't put a pepper shaker or mill on the table, using it only for cooking. In Pilgrim houses, all cooking was done in the fireplace.
As for table manners: As I said, the Indians used their fingers. The Pilgrims did not use forks. Their "silverware" consisted of a spoon and a knife. At that early stage they used wooden plates. It is said that they also handled food with a piece of cloth. I can't quite figure out how that went. Did they reach over and pull off a drumstick with the cloth? (I devour drumsticks with my bare hands and then use a piece of cloth to wipe my mouth and fingers).
NEXT: Communication and Recreation