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Thanksgiving Menu: Pilgrim-Style

It's hard to believe it's November already, particularly since it was a beautiful, warm day today in New England. While I know what's coming, at least for now it's a treat to have had the windows wide open all day! Thanksgiving seems to lose more ground every year as the Christmas shopping season starts earlier and earlier. (It was weeks ago already that I had my first sighting of a Christmas commercial on television...)

Consequently, I thought we should give Thanksgiving a little of the recognition it deserves. As you're planning your feast - or better yet, planning to travel to someone else's house as they do the cooking - have you ever wondered what was on the menu on the Pilgrims' table at the meal that we think of as the "first Thanksgiving?" That feast in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, was actually a traditional English harvest celebration. It wasn't celebrated the following year, and of course it would be many years before the Thanksgiving holiday was instituted in America.

The three day celebration was attended by somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 people - quite the event! And while Thanksgiving for most of us means turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, that's not exactly what the Pilgrims and Native Americans were eating. Historians know for a fact that venison and fowl were served; that information survived in a letter written by one of the Pilgrims who was there.

Other than that, it's an educated guess based on what is known about the foods that were available at the time. There were definitely no potatoes, since they weren't grown in North America until late in the 1600s. Vegetable dishes also weren't on the table, since vegetables wouldn't have been widely available at that time of year. (Indian corn might have been an exception.) There were no pies or anything sweet at the harvest festival; any supply of sugar the Pilgrims might have brought with them on the Mayflower had dwindled or disappeared altogether.

Other foods that might have been consumed include clams, wild turkey, goose, duck, cod, sea bass, and eel. And while we often think of English food as bland, I've read that the Pilgrims actually used quite a lot of spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, to prepare sauces. Dried fruit and nuts were also likely consumed.

The menu might have been different, but there was definitely a lot of food. Hmmm - lots of food - that doesn't sound much different than Thanksgiving meals today!

If you've ever been to the Boston area and taken an excursion to the Plimoth Plantation, you know what a treat that is. This living history museum transports you back in time, as you experience 17th century Plymouth, Massachusetts and interact with "Pilgrims." They are talented role players, and do not break character. It's truly amazing what you can find out about what life was like for the Pilgrims as you converse with these folks.

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