In the fall of 1621, a group of Pilgrims and Wampanoag gathered in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for a harvest feast. This event celebrated the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest, a skill they had been taught by an Indigenous guide named Squanto, who helped the European settlers survive in the unfamiliar territory. The feast lasted for three days and occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. The meal they shared is now considered to be the first Thanksgiving dinner, though the complicated legacy of this inaugural event can’t be ignored.
The Thanksgiving holiday today celebrates a myth of unity and friendship between Indigenous peoples and European colonists, but the reality is much more complex. While the Wampanoag did help Puritan settlers upon their arrival in 1620 and 1621, European colonists went on to massacre and displace millions of Indigenous people in the decades that followed. It’s a dark chapter in the nation’s history that we've only recently begun to reckon with, even as we celebrate gratitude and togetherness each Thanksgiving.
Another common myth associated with this holiday is the food itself. Today, more than 400 years later, dishes such as turkey and mashed potatoes are synonymous with Thanksgiving. But many of the modern holiday staples are more recent inventions. The first Thanksgiving dinner was notably different from today’s traditions, at least according to the scant historical accounts we have of the gathering, namely a letter from diplomat Edward Winslow and a letter penned by William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony.
While it’s difficult to know what exactly was eaten at the first Thanksgiving, it’s possible to piece together a menu based on these accounts and the crops that were available around Plymouth at the time. With that in mind, I, along with several friends, set out to recreate some of the dishes that were likely served at the first Thanksgiving feast.