This year, I plan to cook a traditional Thanksgiving feast for my family filled with traditional Thanksgiving day recipes. But the menu will not include familiar favorites like mashed potatoes, ham, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The ubiquitous Thanksgiving banquet has little in common with the original harvest feast that took place in the fall of 1621—including the date on which we celebrate.
Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner Menu
• Whole Roasted Salmon with Fennel & Rosemary
• Marjoram-Infused Winter Squash Bisque
• Harvest-Day Savory Succotash
• Cabbage and Fennel Slaw
• Bay-Soaked Cornish Game Hens in Raspberry-Sage Glaze
• Cornbread-Sage Dressing
• Rosemary-Balsamic Roasted Roots
• Cranberry Cornsticks with Chives
• Baked Stuffed Apples
• Indian Pudding
Thanksgiving’s beginnings herald back to Plymouth, Massachusetts, when two groups gathered for a three-day harvest feast celebration that has since been referred to as “The First Thanksgiving.”
The groups in question are the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. For the Wampanoag, who inhabited the area around Cape Cod, giving thanks was a part of everyday life. But for that particular harvest in that particular year, the Pilgrims especially had cause to be thankful. The colony had survived a devastating first year in the New World during which nearly half of their people had perished; and the New England harvest of 1621 proved to be a bountiful one.
Herbs in Colonial Life
Though the exact dates of the three-day harvest feast remain unknown, the festivities are believed to have occurred somewhere between September 21 and November 9. That first Thanksgiving most likely took place in the early part of October, soon after the season’s harvest of the famous Indian corn and plenty of herbes.
Herbs have been used as medicine, in ceremonies and to season foods. Herbs also have been gathered, cultivated and transported during humankind’s migration—just as they were when the Pilgrims set sail and landed in a new world.
Back then, the term “herb” encompassed a broad range of plants that the Pilgrims would have used to prepare their three-day harvest feast. Parsnips, carrots, onions, leeks, turnips and cabbages were common herbs harvested in the fall. Herbs also included familiar favorites, such as sage, thyme, marjoram and parsley, which would have flavored the feast.
Both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims gathered and cultivated a variety of herbs. No doubt the Pilgrims also had accumulated a supply of dried herbs and spices before setting sail on their voyage to the New World. In fact, Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow’s “Certain Useful Directions for Such as Intend a Voyage into Those Parts” recommended including such herbal essentials as lemon juice and aniseed water along with cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and other spices.
What Did They Really Eat?
History documents only a portion of the foods offered during the three-day feast. What we know is based on two surviving passages describing the first Thanksgiving: one in a letter written by colonist Edward Winslow; the second in a book written by William Bradford 20 years afterward. Outside of five deer, seasonal wild fowl, cod, bass, eel, Indian corn, cornmeal and “gathering the fruits of their labor,” little else was mentioned of the foods present during the first Thanksgiving.
We do know the Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists commonly ate wild turkey, which were abundant in the area. The Wampanoag often used herbs to season foods and would occasionally stuff wild fowl and fish with what is thought to be a dressing of cornbread and sage.
The waters yielded harvests of shellfish. Crops were also cultivated, including the famous “three sisters”: beans, squash and corn. Native foods included fruits and berries—such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, plums and crab apples—as well as walnuts, chestnuts and hickory nuts. Maple syrup was tapped from trees, and honey from wild hives would have been plentiful.
The colonists brought provisions of wheat, oatmeal, dried peas, vinegar, salt and oil to sustain them on their voyage and beyond. Chickens were brought onboard, which likely meant eggs for the Pilgrims. Dried fruits, nuts, herbs and spices also made their way to the New World, along with seeds and grafted shrubs and trees. Corn and pumpkins—a word used indiscriminately for pumpkin and squash—quickly became essential staples for the early colonists.
Our history-inspired holiday menu may differ from the first Thanksgiving feast, but one element remains constant: the herbs and spices used to season the food. So this year, instead of whipping up the usual mashed potatoes and gravy, feature herbs with the foods that likely made up that first Thanksgiving feast.
A few of the herbs familiar to and grown by early settlers include basil, bay laurel, borage, catnip, chamomile, chervil, chives, fennel, garlic, hops, lavender, marjoram, mint, mustard, onion, parsley, rosemary, sorrel, summer savory and thyme.
Frequent contributor Kris Wetherbee writes and gardens in the hills of western Oregon.