Manners and Menus: The First Harvest Feast

Thursday, November 8, 2018

What follows is an excerpt from an article about what is known today as the First Thanksgiving. The article originally appeared in "The Thanksgiving Primer" a publication produced by Plimoth Plantation. 

There is no exact record of the bill of fare for the famous first harvest festival of 1621, often referred to as the "First Thanksgiving." The event is mentioned only in two quotes, one from William Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation and the other in a letter by Edward Winslow included in Mourt's Relation. We have no specific date for the three-day celebration, but we know it was between September 21, when the shallop returned from Massachusetts Bay and November 9, when the Fortune arrived with settlers. 

From the two quotes, we learn that the feast included cod, sea bass, wildfowl (such as ducks, geese, turkeys and swans), corn meal (and probably wheat), and five deer brought by Indians.

Meat, fish and bread were the most important elements of the English diet at this time, although fruits and "herbs" were also eaten. The term "vegetables" was not in use at this time; edible plants were known as sallet herbs, potherbs or roots. It is quite possible that shellfish were not a feature at the feast, for although they were plentiful and formed a large part of the Pilgrims' diet in the early years, they were looked on as poverty fare and hence inappropriate for a feast. 

The meats were roasted or boiled in traditional English fashion, and the fish boiled or perhaps grilled in the Indian manner. Breads were skillet breads cooked by the fire or perhaps risen breads baked in a clay or cloam oven. Fruit tarts were produced in the same way. 

The herbs were either boiled along with the meats as "sauce," or used in "sallets." A sallet was a vegetable dish either cooked or raw, and either "simple" or "compound" (that is, made from one ingredient or several). The popularity of sallet or vegetable dishes was not great at this time. Therefore, they are not always mentioned, although they were served fairly frequently. 

Beyond the foods noted, the Pilgrims had a number of native and English fruits and herbs. The former were both wild and cultivated, the latter grown in cottage gardens from English seeds. 

Native Plants
American & Beach Plums Smooth & Round-leaved 
Wild Cherries 
Ground Nuts
Wild Strawberries 
American Crab Apples 
Hickory Nuts 
Jerusalem Artichokes 
Wild Onions 

Many of the fruits were no longer in season by harvest time, but they were often dried by the Indians and may have been preserved by the colonists as well. 

The first plantings of English seeds may not have produced abundantly, but some familiar food­stuffs were available. The field pea crop failed, but the barley survived and provided the colonists with malt for beer. We do not know which English plants were set in the gardens of 1621, but we may assume that the following popular herbs were represented, and others as well.

English Plants

Apart from two dogs, there is no record of European animals on the Mayflower. However, it is reasonable to assume there were chickens and possibly cats, goats (for milk) and pigs. Cattle, horses and sheep were not present until later. It is unlikely that any livestock was slaughtered because the colonists were trying to build up stock. There is a good chance that eggs and goat's milk were there­fore available. 

Beverages included beer, Aqua Vitae -- or "strong waters" -- and water. Milk was not drunk whole, and only occasionally as whey. Children drank beer along with their elders. Brandy is a fair substitute for "Aqua Vitae." 

What was not available at the first harvest? Apples, pears and other fruits not native to New England would take years to bear after planting. Therefore there was no cider at the first harvest. Potatoes were known to botanists, and sweet potatoes enjoyed a mild popularity in England among the well-to-do; they had supposed aphrodisiacal powers, but they were not available in early New England. The corn grown by the Pilgrims and local Indians was a flint variety; they had neither sweet corn-on-the-cob nor popcorn. Flint corn, when roasted or "parched," does puff a bit but not as dramatically as true popcorn. There was no "Indian Pudding" in its mod­ern form because there was no molasses. Cranberries might have been used in "puddings in the belly," which we know as stuff­ings, but not as the familiar jelly or preserve, because of the scarcity of sugar. Celery was unknown. Olives were imported in England, but it is unlikely that they came to Plymouth in 1620. However, olive oil, or "sallet oil" is suggested for future immigrants in Mourt's Relation. Even creamed onions were not present, for although onions and milk were possibly available, there were no flour-thickened sauces or gravies in 1621. Bread crumbs or egg yolks were used as thickeners instead. The English enjoyed spices and would have brought a supply of cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cloves and pepper, but not allspice. Tea and coffee were not in use in England, or known to the Pilgrims. 

The English, even Puritans and Separatists, enjoyed feasting. Bills of fare of the period, even for middle-class families look enormous to our eyes. However, there were some differences in the pre­sentation of food. A dish was not prepared with the intent of allowing each guest a portion, as at pot-luck dinner, each dish pro­vided only a limited amount of food. Courses didn't proceed from soup to sweets, but contained all sorts of dishes at the same time. The table was set with a variety of dishes, and they were passed or fetched by the children and ser­vants who waited on their own families. There would not be any table decorations in the modern sense, for decorated salts and sub­tleties (elaborate food sculptures) were not a part of the yeoman tradition of the Pilgrims.
People sat at cloth-covered tables on benches and forms, with a few chairs for the more important men. They ate with knives, a few spoons, but no forks. Large linen napkins, about three feet square, were important since hands were used to both serve and eat. Dishes and/or trenchers (small square or round wooden plates) were used. Some­times two people would share one of these. The food was taken from the serving bowls and platters, and perhaps cut on a trencher be­fore being consumed, or just eaten without being cut. Perhaps the "reach and eat" style still used in the Near East is the best analogy. Other pieces of food were put on the trencher, and eaten as we do today. Pottage (or soups) were eaten from bowls, and the bever­ages were passed around in bowls, cups, or other containers. 

There were about 140 people at the three-day harvest celebration, 90 Indian men and some 50 Pil­grims. There were only four adult women who survived the first win­ter: Elizabeth Hopkins, Elinor Billington, Mary Brewster and Susanna Winslow. They probably oversaw the cooking and preparations, with the help of the children and servants.