Thanksgiving cabin dinner

Eat Like the Pilgrims: 7 Easy Colonial Thanksgiving Recipes

When the Pilgrims and the Native Americans had their first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, they didn’t have mashed potatoes, sweet potato casseroles, pumpkin pies, or cranberry sauce. In fact, potatoes had yet to be introduced to North America, butter and wheat flour for pie crusts weren’t available, and cranberry sauce simply didn’t exist back then.

The Thanksgiving food we know today is nothing like what the 53 surviving Pilgrims and over 90 Native Americans hunted, harvested, prepared, and served at the famous meal 391 years ago. Their pickings were much slimmer, but they managed to create a beautiful feast that left them satisfied and full.

Even though no one knows the complete dinner menu, historians are certain that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoyed the following foods at the famous feast:

  • Wildfowl (goose, duck, swan, passenger pigeons)
  • Wild turkey
  • Venison
  • Porridge
  • Corn bread

You’d be surprised to learn that turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal. Instead, goose or duck was the main course. The smaller birds were spit roasted while the larger birds were boiled. Historians suspect that some birds were boiled first, and then roasted, and others were roasted first, and then boiled. Also, the Pilgrims stuffed the birds with shelled chestnuts or onions and herbs.

Historians, although uncertain, believe that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans also had:

  • Eels
  • Lobster
  • Clams
  • Mussels
  • Chestnuts
  • Walnuts
  • Beechnuts
  • Hickory nuts
  • Multi-colored Indian corn
  • Pumpkins
  • Squashes
  • Onions
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Lettuces
  • Spinach
  • Radishes

The Pilgrims brought pigs, chickens, and goats with them to America, but historians can’t figure out how many of these animals were left after the first winter. If hens or goats were still around, the Pilgrims probably included eggs or cheese in the first Thanksgiving feast. The Pilgrims and the Native Americans were believed to have seasoned their dishes with salt, cinnamon, ginger, liverwort, leeks, pepper, and nutmeg.

A lot has changed since our founding fathers first celebrated the harvest in the New World. If you want to eat like they did, you can forget about potatoes, cranberry sauce, biscuits, deviled eggs, pies, cakes, and even beer. Instead, keep it simple and try out the following colonial Thanksgiving recipes the Pilgrims and the Native Americans so clearly enjoyed.

1. Cornbread

  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ¾ cup buttermilk

Mix the dry ingredients. Stir in the buttermilk until thoroughly mixed. Pour the batter into a buttered 7” x 11” x 2” dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. [From The Good Land: Native Americans and Early Colonial Foods by Patricia Mitchell, 1992]

2. Stewed Pumpkin

  • 8 cups peeled and diced pumpkin
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • Salt to taste

Put 2 cups of pumpkin and ¼ cup of water into a large pot and cook over low heat. Keep adding more pumpkin until you have used all 8 cups. When the pumpkin is tender, remove from heat and add butter, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices. Stir gently and serve. Be sure to allow plenty of time to cook this dish. [Source]

3. Indian Pudding

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups light cream
  • 2 tablespoons stone ground yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • A pinch of ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs, beaten

In a large pan, heat the milk and cream until near boiling point. Gradually add the yellow cornmeal and bring it to a boil, stirring briskly. Stir in sugar, maple syrup, butter, and all the other dry ingredients. Let the mixture cool slightly. Beat in the eggs and pour the batter into a buttered 1 ½ quart baking dish, and bake at 325 degrees for 2 hours. [Source]

4. Dressed Crab

  • Freshly steamed or boiled crabs
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • Sugar to taste
  • White wine vinegar to taste
  • Butter

Remove and discard the legs from the crabs. Open the shell of each crab and carefully remove all the edible meat and put it in a bowl. Discard the top shells and clean the bottom shells thoroughly. Shred the crab meat with a fork and moisten it with vinegar. Fold in sugar and cinnamon until thoroughly mixed. In a pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the meat and cook until completely heated through. Place the meat back into the cleaned shells and serve at once. [Source]

5. Venison Roast

  • Venison roast
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Bacon

Rub the roast with salt and pepper, and place in a large roasting pan, roaster, or Dutch oven. Lay slices of fatty bacon on top of the meat, and bake at 325 degrees for a few hours or until it reaches your desired doneness. [Source]

6. Baked Eel

  • One eel, skinned and slightly over one pound
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Ginger
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Raisins
  • 2 small onions, chopped

Chop the eel into three-inch pieces, and season it with salt, pepper, and ginger. Put the pieces into a baking tin with the butter, onions, and raisins. Cover the tin and bake at 360 degrees for about 50 minutes. [Source]

7. Nasaump (thick Native American porridge)

  • 1 ½ cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, or a combination of all three)
  • ½ cup crushed nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, or a combination of all three)
  • 1 quart water
  • Maple syrup to taste

Combine the cornmeal, berries, crushed nuts, and maple syrup in a pot of water and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. [Source]

Celebrating the past

There’s no better way to connect with our founding fathers than to cook and taste the very recipes they enjoyed. So let’s try those recipes and feast like it’s 1621!

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