Source: Kathleen Curtin, Food
Historian at Plimoth Plantation
Without Forks and Other Feast Facts
A Meal Without Forks and Other
In 1621 the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians
shared an autumn harvest feast which is now known as the
first Thanksgiving. While cooking methods and table
etiquette have changed as the holiday has evolved, the
meal is still consumed today with the same spirit of
celebration and overindulgence.
What Was Actually on the Menu?
What foods topped the table at the
first harvest feast? Historians aren't completely certain
about the full bounty, but it's safe to say the pilgrims
weren't gobbling up pumpkin pie or playing with their
Following is a list of the foods that were available to
the colonists at the time of the 1621 feast. However, the
only two items that historians know for sure were on the
menu are venison and wild fowl, which are mentioned in
The most detailed description of the "First
Thanksgiving" comes from Edward Winslow.
Seventeenth-Century Table Manners
The pilgrims didn't use forks; they ate with spoons,
knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on
large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot
morsels of food.
Salt would have been on the table at
the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on
their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used
for cooking but wasn't available on the table.
In the seventeenth century, a
person's social standing determined what he or she ate.
The best food was placed next to the most important
people. People didn't tend to sample everything that was
on the table (as we do today), they just ate what was
closest to them.
Serving in the seventeenth century
was very different from serving today. People weren't
served their meals individually. Foods were served onto
the table and then people took the food from the table
and ate it. All the servers had to do was move the food
from the place where it was cooked onto the table.
Pilgrims didn't eat in courses as we
do today. All of the different types of foods were placed
on the table at the same time and people ate in any order
they chose. Sometimes there were two courses, but each of
them would contain both meat dishes, puddings, and
More Meat, Less Vegetables
Our modern Thanksgiving repast is centered around the
turkey, but that certainly wasn't the case at the
pilgrims's feasts. Their meals included many different
meats. Vegetable dishes, one of the main components of
our modern celebration, didn't really play a large part
in the feast mentality of the seventeenth century.
Depending on the time of year, many vegetables weren't
available to the colonists.
The pilgrims probably didn't have
pies or anything sweet at the harvest feast. They had
brought some sugar with them on the Mayflower but
by the time of the feast, the supply had dwindled. Also,
they didn't have an oven so pies and cakes and breads
were not possible at all.
The food that was eaten at the harvest feast would have
seemed fatty by 1990's standards, but it was probably
more healthy for the pilgrims than it would be for people
today. The colonists were more active and needed more
protein. Heart attack was the least of their worries.
They were more concerned about the plague and pox.
Surprisingly Spicy Cooking
People tend to think of English food at bland, but, in
fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon,
ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for
In the seventeenth century, cooks did not use proportions
or talk about teaspoons and tablespoons. Instead, they
The best way to cook things in the seventeenth century
was to roast them. Among the pilgrims, someone was
assigned to sit for hours at a time and turn the spit to
make sure the meat was evenly done.
Since the pilgrims and Wampanoag
Indians had no refrigeration in the seventeenth century,
they tended to dry a lot of their foods to preserve them.
They dried Indian corn, hams, fish, and herbs.
Dinner for Breakfast: Pilgrim Meals
The biggest meal of the day for the colonists was eaten
at noon and it was called noonmeat or dinner. The
housewives would spend part of their morning cooking that
meal. Supper was a smaller meal that they had at the end
of the day. Breakfast tended to be leftovers from the
previous day's noonmeat.
In a pilgrim household, the adults sat down to eat and
the children and servants waited on them.
The foods that the colonists and Wampanoag Indians ate
were very similar, but their eating patterns were
different. While the colonists had set eating patterns -
breakfast, dinner, and supper - the Wampanoags tended to
eat when they were hungry and to have pots cooking
throughout the day.