Thanksgiving is a time for family, good food and both the eating and pardoning of turkey. Although we tend to idealize the holiday’s roots as a celebration harvest between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, some of our traditions couldn’t be more different than those of the first Thanksgiving. Here’s how to have an authentic Thanksgiving celebration 1621 style.

Forget football

First order of business, gather up all the strapping young men and go for a wildfowl hunt. The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving lasted three days and consisted of hunting, feasting and other forms of entertainment. That definitely does not include throwing around the pigskin.

Was there turkey? Unclear.


Photo by Net Supatravanij

Although historians know that wild turkeys were quite common in the diet of the settlers, written eyewitness accounts make no mention of turkey during the Thanksgiving celebration. Instead, other bird options to serve include geese, ducks, even swans and passenger pigeons. The pilgrims also relied on fishing, so seafood such as mussels are acceptable for your authentic dinner. The Wampanoag, the local Native American tribe in the area, brought five deer to the feast, so make sure there’s venison on your Thanksgiving menu, and lots of it.

What about mashed potatoes?


Photo by Bernard Wen

Potatoes, including the sweet variety, did not originate in North America, and historians report that both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes had not made it to the Plymouth settlement yet. For sides, consider dishes with onions, beans, turnips, cabbage, carrots, peas or perhaps cornmeal porridge instead.

Please tell me there was at least pumpkin pie!!!


Photo by Sharpay Zhang

Nope. Although there were definitely pumpkins, the colonists did not have wheat for flour or even butter, which means piecrust (as well as bread-based stuffing) was out of the question. The pilgrims had most likely run out of sugar by the time the Thanksgiving celebration occurred, and thus other sweetened dishes familiar to us also were not possible. For example, cranberries may have been served, but they were not made into the sweet sauce that is popular today.

Boy’s Club

Eyewitness accounts from the day make no mention of women. No doubt they were busy cooking for the men, but it doesn’t seem like they actually actively participated in the festivities. The Thanksgiving celebration may have also had political purposes for establishing relationships between the Wampanoag tribe and the settlers. This means ladies (including me) aren’t allowed at the big table.

On second thought…

Perhaps change is good. From the legacy of Native American exploitation to sexism, I’m glad that at least some things are different. Even if the dishes and the traditions are not quite true to the original, as long as the thankful spirit is there, I’d say we can still call our Thanksgivings authentic.


Photo Courtesy of Hill Country BBQ

More Delicious Foods That Probably Weren’t Served by the Pilgrims: