What Pilgrims and Wampanoag Really Ate on Thanksgiving

Parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, beans, leeks and venison was likely on the table of the feast (which was in September).

If your last Thanksgiving "history" lesson involved gluing feathers to paper bag vests in preschool, you may not know that the celebration actually took place in September, that there were few women or children, and that the shared banquet was mostly an accident.

Although Abraham Lincoln didn't make the feast an official national holiday until 1863, Thanksgiving lore goes back to 1621, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag shared a three-day harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony.

It came about, most historians believe, when the Wampanoag heard Pilgrims shooting guns in celebration. Not understanding the cause of the gunfire, the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, traveled to the village with some warriors, having recently signed a treaty with the English that each group would defend the other.

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"When he arrives, he finds out there's nothing going on and that they're having a celebration," said Tim Turner, guest experience manager at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "He's invited to stay at the point. Since there's not enough food, he sends out five warriors who bring back five deer."

Venison, which could have been served roasted or stewed, was a clear indication of a special celebration, according to Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimoth Plantation who has studied cookbooks, letters, even dishes and cups from the era to ascertain what the Pilgrims and Wampanoag feasted on.

One of the only surviving documents, a letter from Edward Winslow, an English leader, details how four men were sent "fowling," bringing back enough birds and ducks for a week. That could have included goose, swans, passenger pigeons, and possibly turkey, Wall says.

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They also would have had plenty of fish, Wall says, including cod, eels, shellfish, mussels and clams.

And the harvest would have brought squash, although pumpkin would have been stewed with vinegar, spices and butter, Wall says, not served in a pie. Parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, beans and leeks were likely grown in the Pilgrims' gardens, complemented by wild chestnuts, walnuts, and grapes.

Because there was no wheat flour, the only bread-like item would have been some sort of flatbread made from corn.

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No cranberries, no potatoes, no pie. And to drink? Water. But "really good water," Wall says, pointing out that the English chose to settle in Plymouth because of its access to natural springs. They didn't know how to make wine, and while they had some barley they wouldn't have had time to malt it for beer, Wall says.

There was enough food, in other words, to last for days. Picture "several different meals; an endless banquet," Wall says.

What made it unique, however, was the cross-cultural aspect. Although it may have been accidental, and it never happened again, it was significant to share traditional foods between two cultures: Turnips, parsnips and cabbages would have been unfamiliar to the Wampanoag, while many of the Pilgrims probably had never eaten venison, Wall says.

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"We were pretty used to feasting," Turner said of the Wampanoag. "And we gave thanks every single day, to an animal or plant that we were eating; we were giving thanks all the time, so that's not a new thing. What's new would be celebrating with a whole different culture."

Hoping to evoke some authenticity at your Thanksgiving table? Serve venison, Turner suggests, or at least a variety of meats, Wall adds.

"Or, put down your forks and use spoons and knives and fingers," Wall says. "They could not have had forks in the 17th century."

Venison was likely on the table of the first famous feast.

Prehistoric humans in the Americas likely enjoyed turkey dinners, just as meat lovers do today, but it was the visual splendor of turkeys -- and particularly male tom turkeys -- that captivated them the most. "Interestingly, the domestic turkeys were initially raised for their feathers, which were used in rituals and ceremonies, as well as to make feather robes or blankets," Camilla Speller, a University of York archaeologist, told Discovery News. "Only later, around 1100 A.D., did the domestic turkeys become an important food source for the ancestral Puebloans."

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The ancient Puebloans didn't know of the Royal Palm, which first appeared on a Virginia farm in 1920s. They surely would have admired its dramatic white and black coloration. The Royal Palm has since become one of the few turkeys bred primarily for looks and not for meat production. It's endangered, but might still be seen on small farms or on exhibition.

Bourbon Red turkeys, known for their reddish-brown plumage, originated in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and in Pennsylvania. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has this turkey on its "watch" list because there are less than 5,000 breeding Bourbon Reds in the United States.

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The feathers of Blue Slate tom turkeys often appear ash gray with a slight azure tinge. Males of this turkey breed and others mate in the spring, when they seductively gobble for hens. Once a hen responds, the couple will gobble back and forth for a while before the male prances in front of her, showing off his plumage.

After the Spanish arrived in the New World, they transported Aztec turkey breeds from Mexico to Europe, where the big birds were a huge hit. "Over the following two centuries, several varieties of turkey were developed in Europe, and then in the 18th century, these European turkey breeds were imported back to the United States, where they eventually became the forerunners to the turkeys we eat today," Speller said. The Black Spanish, also known as the Norfolk Black, was one such turkey.

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Named after Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, the Narragansett turkey somewhat resembles the Bronze turkey. Its mostly featherless carunculated (bumpy) head and neck display colors, with this individual sporting coral pink and white hues. Like a visible mood ring, the colors can go to bright blue when the males become excited.

When displaying for females, toms such as this White turkey will strut while dragging their wings and fanning out their tail feathers. An individual turkey can have as many as 6,000 feathers on its body. The feathers don't seem to weigh these birds down, however, as some turkeys have been clocked running at speeds of up to 25 mph.

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The good news this Thanksgiving is that, due to restoration efforts over the past 75 years, turkeys are now found just about everywhere they occurred when the Pilgrims arrived, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. While some heritage domesticated breeds are rare, wild turkeys seem to have little difficulty adapting to golf courses, suburbs and other human-centric spots. Ethan Alpern of the USGS shares: "A group of turkeys is referred to as either a rafter or a gang. So this Thanksgiving, when celebrating with your own group, remember the turkey as more than just the main course, but as Benjamin Franklin did so many years ago, as a noble fowl of American tradition."