While our 21st century Thanksgiving feast may bear little resemblance to a 1621 celebration or to the meal popularly referred to as the First Thanksgiving, it's fortunate that we don't have to travel back in time to learn about the traditions that are at the root of today’s holiday. In fact, we only have to travel about 45 minutes south of Boston to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA, to find what is often called the birthplace of our national Thanksgiving celebration. Curious to know what a “first” Thanksgiving would have looked like, we spoke with Kathleen M. Wall, culinary historian at Plimoth Plantation, for some insights and recipes that kids can help make.
Plimoth Plantation’s 17th-century English village is a re-creation of the small farming and maritime community built by the Pilgrims along the shore of Plymouth Harbor. In the Village, set in the year is 1627, just seven years after the arrival of Mayflower, you’ll find modest timber-framed houses furnished with reproductions of the types of objects that the Pilgrims owned, aromatic kitchen gardens, and heritage breeds livestock. “Townspeople” - costumed role players - tell you about their lives in Plymouth Colony, and daily activities re-create life in 1627.
There were no cranberries, mashed potatoes, apples or even turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but Wall did share some 17th-century recipes that are still prepared at Plimoth Plantation today. The dishes that follow may not be the typical fare for the Thanksgiving kids’ table, but kids can help with their preparation. To quote Wall, “There is no or minimal knife use, no lifting hot pans, no plucking the feathers from geese and then roasting them for hours in front of a wood fire.”
Well, my wood fire has been out of commission for years, but I do believe that by involving my kids with these recipes, they will be more willing to try different flavors, and we may even find a new favorite to add to our family’s traditional meal.
A pudding made of flour stirred in boiling milk or water to the consistency of a thick batter.
“It [maize] is light of digestion, and the English make a kind of Loblolly of it, to eat with Milk, which they call Sampe ; they beat it in a Morter, and sift the flower out of it; the remainder they call Homminey, which they put in a Pot of two or three Gallons, with Water, and boyl it upon a gentle Fire till it be like Hasty Pudden; they put of this into Milk, and so eat it."
- Josslyn, John. New Englands Rarities. 1672. Mass. Historical Society, 1972, p. 52.
For the 21st century kitchen:
- Bring at one or two quarts of water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and several handfuls of grits. Stir well. It should quickly thicken to a batter like consistency. Pour into a bowl and top with milk.
- Note: This really is a dish cooked in minutes – heat and serve food of the 17th century!
- Note: There was no milk available in Plymouth in 1621.
Mustard Sauce, or “Divers”
Pilgrims ate mustard with many dishes, and while we recommend replacing the cannon bullet with a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or even the end of a wooden spoon and a small bowl (!), this simple recipe yields a flavorful sauce:
Have good seed, pick it, and wash it ion cold water, drain it, and rub it in a cloth very clean; then beat it in a mortar with strong wine-vinegar: and being fine beaten, strain it and keep it close covered. Or grind it in a mustard quern, or a bowl with a cannon bullet.
- May, Robert. The Accomplist Cook. London: 1678 (4th edition) Falconwood Press: Albany, NY 1992. p. 89
Sops of Onions
A bruschetta-like topping for bread or to serve with meat
A sop of Onions.
Take and slice your Onions, & put them in a frying panne with a dish or two of sweete butter, and frie them together, then take a little faire water and put into it salt and peper, and so frie them together a little more, then boile them in a lyttle Earthen pot, putting to it a lyttle water and sweet butter, & c. You may use Spinanage in like maner.
- Dawson, Thomas. The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell. 1597. (FW transcript, p 7-8.)
For the 21st century kitchen:
Bread (in 1621, this would have been cornbread)
Salt/pepper, other spices
- Peel and slice the onions. Melt the butter in a frying pan; add onions; stir until they are golden. Salt, pepper and other spice to taste. Transfer it to a little earthen pot (or other little pot) and add more butter and a little water, continue cooking until they’re dark and mushy and like onion jam.
- Toast or fry the bread. Top with some of the onion.
- Optional: sprinkle with vinegar and/or scrape some sugar on top.
- The sops can go under the meat on the serving platter, under the meat on the plate or be served on the side.
Even though there were no apples in Plymouth, what would Thanksgiving be without apple pie! Here’s an original 17th century English recipe, adapted for the 21st century kitchen:
2 cups all purpose flour
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoons sugar
6 tablespoon cold water
- Mix flour with salt and sugar. Work butter in until it’s crumbly. Add water and mix and mash until it holds together. Add a little more so it’s holding together, but not too much. When it forms into a great big ball, divide into two parts, one larger then the other – one one-third and the other two-thirds.
- Shape into 2 disks, cover with plastic wrap or put into a plastic bag so it doesn’t dry out and let it sit in the fridge for at least 10 minutes and up to overnight.
Meanwhile, make up the filling:
1 pound apples (about 3 medium sized ones)
1 tablespoon sugar
½ – 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon butter plus
1 teaspoon butter, melted and 1 teaspoon sugar for the topping
- Cut the apples into quarters, peel and core.
- Sprinkle a dusting of flour on your work surface. Take the pastry out of the fridge and remove the larger disk from its wrapping. This is going to be the bottom of your pie. Put some flour on your hands and dust your rolling pin. Swack the pastry disk with your rolling pin a few times. Roll it out to be and inch or two larger then your pie plate. Roll the pastry unto your rolling pin and transfer it to the pie plate. The high butter content in this pastry is going to make it rich and flavorful; it will be so meltingly tender
- Put your cut apples in, round bumpy sided up. Sprinkle with cinnamon, sugar and dot with the butter. This is a flat, tart style pie, not one of the sky high variety.
- Remove the smaller pastry disk from its plastic, put on your floured surface and swack and roll some more for the upper crust, or lid. Remember, the flour keeps things from sticking, so you should only need a dusting! Cut slits in the pastry, roll around your pin and transfer to the top of the apples.
- Roll the edges of the bottom crust to meet the top crust and crimp and seal all around. The edges can be resting inside the pan, right on top of the apples.
- Bake at 375 for 45-50 minutes – it’ll smell great and be a lovely golden color. Take out of the oven, brush on the melted butter, sprinkle with rest of the sugar and put back into the oven. Shut the oven off. Leave the pie in the warm oven for at least 10 minutes or through supper so you can eat it warm for dessert.
For more culinary treats from the 1600s, visit Wall’s blog, Pilgrim Seasonings.
Photo courtesy of Plimoth Plantation
Post originally published November 2013; updated November 2015