Was Turkey Even Served At The First Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving officially became an American holiday in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the national celebration post-Civil War, according to History.com. But the annual day of gratitude dates way back to the fall of 1621 — a mere 400 years ago — when British settlers hosted the first documented harvest gathering in Plymouth Colony. It's safe to say, however, that what most of us learned in school about the first Thanksgiving isn't exactly true. For now, we'll focus on what was eaten — and what wasn't.

The "traditional" Thanksgiving menu — at least in today's terms — consists of a few staple dishes: mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, candied yams, and, of course, oven-roasted turkey. But what foods were served at the first-ever Thanksgiving feast? The historic anniversary is often nicknamed "Turkey Day" to pay homage to many families' favorite fare, but was a turkey even on the table when the pilgrims dined with Native Americans so many centuries ago? The answer may surprise you.

What was served at the first Thanksgiving?

Spoiler alert: The earliest Thanksgiving menu is a pretty far throw from what is typically served on modern dining tables. Obviously, a lot has changed over the past few centuries, including the availability of ingredients we now consider quintessential. One thing is for certain: Turkey has not always been the centerpiece. Other wildfowl, however, were caught and cooked for the guests to enjoy.

Turkey might not have been the star dish at the first Thanksgiving, but it's a possibility that the colonists and Wampanoag did eat some. As Governor William Bradford wrote at the time (via Smithsonian Magazine), "And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc." But according to New England Today, the inaugural Thanksgiving meal more likely consisted of game meats like deer, geese, duck, plus sides of corn, porridge, walnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts. Kathleen Wall, culinarian at the Plimoth Patuxet Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, believes that the original Thanksgiving patrons could have dined on eels and shellfish, including lobsters, clams, and mussels, she told Smithsonian Magazine. Swans and passenger pigeons (which are now extinct) were also frequently eaten at the time.

Other ingredients and crops that are crucial to today's Thanksgiving meals were not even introduced to the Americas at the time. This includes butter, wheat flour, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberries.