Most of us have an image of the first thanksgiving that we learned in grade school: of the Pilgrims sitting with the Indians at a large table with a white tablecloth celebrating the harvest together over a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
But research shows that the traditional depiction of the first Thanksgiving may not be altogether accurate. In fact, whatever happened at Plymouth 398 years ago, it may not have been the first Thanksgiving at all. There are no less than twelve competing claims about the first Thanksgiving, some maintaining it took place not in New England but in Texas or Florida.
One thing is certain, however. What was on the table at the first Thanksgiving scarcely resembles what we think of today as a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. As historian Timothy Walch puts it, “Never has the history of a meal been so obscured by myth.”
Take, for example, the centerpiece of the modern Thanksgiving meal, roast turkey. If it was served at the first Thanksgiving, it was probably not roasted but boiled or stewed. On the basis of the only surviving eyewitness account, the only food that we know for sure was on the table at Plymouth Colony in 1621 was venison.
Similarly, cranberry sauce was not likely on the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Though the berries are native to the New World, the American colonists had no access to sugar, an exotic ingredient at the time, and without it cranberries would have been too bitter to eat.
Likewise, sweet potatoes, a staple of today’s Thanksgiving menu, are native to this hemisphere, specifically South America, but they had not yet made their way north by the time of the first Thanksgiving.
Finally, the colonists had plenty of pumpkins, but they had no wheat with which to make pie crusts and no ovens for baking. So there was no pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving. That alone should make us realize how much better we have it these days.