The first Thanksgiving took place in Autumn of 1621 in Plymouth Massachusetts. The meal was shared by the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag tribe to celebrate the survival of the colony, the brotherhood with the natives and the first fruitful harvest. But do the meals we know as “traditional” actually look anything like the first Thanksgiving spread? Believe it or not, there is no evidence that shows there was turkey present during the first Thanksgiving feast; historical records show that foul had been brought to the table, but it is believed the foul was geese or duck. Potatoes had not been introduced in North America yet, the pilgrims did not have sugar, there were no cows and there was no wheat, which means there were no potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no butter, and no pie! So, without potatoes, cranberry sauce, pie, or even possibly turkey, what actually was served at the first Thanksgiving? Culinary historians believe that first meal consisted of a variety of seafood.
Seafood was incredibly important to the pilgrims, with records of an overwhelming abundance of fish and sea life right in Cape Cod Bay when they first landed in 1621. It was reported there was difficulty steering the Mayflower amidst the hundreds of right whales that had come into the bay to feed on shoals. In addition to the abundance of whales, there were said to be 18-foot sturgeon in abundance, codfish were so thick they could be harvested in baskets, and striped bass everywhere following the baitfish right into the bay. In addition, there were supposedly so many lobsters that they would just line the beach to the point that they could just be picked up by hand. Mussels were also readily available and easy to harvest, as they would cling to rocks close to the shoreline. As a result of the abundance of seafood at their disposal, it is believed that seafood played a large role in the first Thanksgiving, particularly lobster, bass, mussels, and oysters.
Where did the turkey come from then? If seafood was so abundant to the pilgrims and played such an important role in the first Thanksgiving, why is it largely absent from the current “traditional” meals we see, and when did turkey become the staple? It is believed that the menu changed when President Lincoln approved Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. This was after the brutal Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War and as a result, holiday menus consisted of recipes which were crafted in the 1860’s. Recipe books which were written about the holiday of Thanksgiving were written after 1863, so it is believed that this is where turkey was introduced. These recipe books did not include lobster or seafood as they were not available outside coastal areas, so the focus remained on foul, and since turkey was the largest and most readily available, that took the crown as the focal point of most meals from this point on.
This year don’t be afraid to go back to our countries true roots and mix some seafood into your Thanksgiving feast! Including seafood in your spread this year is a great way to add nutritional value and reduce your caloric intake. Now more than ever it is crucial we support local business and locally sourced ingredients as COVID has impacted so many local economies. As a result of shipping delays and supply chain issues, grocery stores are bumping up prices on items based off packaging and shipping costs they incur, but it’s the same product just with a higher price tag. Shop local this Thanksgiving and support local business.