Eat Like the Pilgrims

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Would you like to celebrate Thanksgiving the way the Pilgrims did? Then be ready for a departure from your traditional turkey, dressing, gravy, potatoes, and pie menu! The Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians didn't have a single meal for Thanksgiving in 1621. The harvest celebration was three days long, and included games, competitions, and storytelling as well as meals for around 150 people.

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You may be surprised to learn that some of the foods that are traditional Thanksgiving fare were not available for the Pilgrim's celebration. They may have had cranberries, but they didn't have sugar to make sauce. Sweet potatoes or yams were not common to the area, much less white potatoes. Pumpkin pie recipes did not exist at the time, and there were no proper ovens to bake pastries, anyway. Any milk or cheese had to have come from goats, as the Pilgrims did not bring cows with them from England.

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Authentic Thanksgiving foods, after the jump.

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The Pilgrims had vegetables, but not in the abundance we think of when we see harvest displays of pumpkins and cornucopia. They used Indian corn, which would be dried by November, so no corn on the cob or popcorn. The dried corn could be made into meal for cornbread or added to stews. Sweet and savory dishes were served together, so sweet Indian corn pudding would accompany meals. They had pumpkins, squash, peas, onions, beans, and carrots which would be stewed. But the Pilgrims were better hunters than farmers.

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The feasts were heavy on meat, compared to today's diets. A contemporary account tells of a hunt that provided a week's worth of fowl for the celebration, which would include turkeys, ducks, swans, partridges, and other wild birds. The Indians killed and presented the company with five deer. Sure, their meals had lots of fat and protein, but pioneers performed physical labor from sunup til sundown. Besides, they had an expected lifespan of... well, they were lucky to survive to adulthood. No need to worry about clogged arteries when you might freeze to death first.
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Seafood was most certainly on the menu, including lobster, crabs, fish, eel, and even seal meat. There were also dried cranberries, loganberries, bluberries, cherries, grapes, and plums.

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The colonists' company only had four married women and five adolescent girls after the first devastating winter. When trying to reconstruct the Thanksgiving feast, you have to consider what those few cooks were able to accomplish for 150 hungry celebrants. The venison was probably roasted over fires, which would be a manly task as it is today. The fowl were more likely stewed in cauldrons, along with dried vegetables. Some fruits, nuts, and sweets in season could be served raw, saving time and labor.
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What to drink with an authentic Thanksgiving meal? Beer, of course. The Puritans were not opposed to alcohol, although they preached against overindulgence. They set up a brewhouse shortly after arriving in the New World. They learned to make beer from Indian corn and other available ingredients. The advantage of beer is that it is less likely than water to become contaminated with disease.

Find some recipes for traditional Thanksgiving dishes through the years at Pilgrim Hall Museum.

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November 11, 2007 - 12:27am
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