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."