For Thanksgiving 2004, I posted an account of the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in 1621.
Last Thanksgiving, the New York Times ran a bizarre op-ed by Professor James E. McWilliams of Texas State University at San Marcos on our anachronistic views of the food served at the first Thanksgiving.
McWilliams in the 2005 New York Times:
But the colonial minister Charles Woodmason quoted by McWilliams was not a Pilgrim writing in the 1620s. Woodmason was a famously prejudiced Anglican missionary to backcountry Carolina, describing the habits of Irish and Scots-Irish settlers in his diary during 1766-68, over 140 years after the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving. Here is the sort of food that Woodmason was complaining that the poor Appalachians were eating (and not eating):
They Held Their Noses, and Ate
No contemporary American holiday is as deeply steeped in culinary tradition as Thanksgiving. Not only is the day centered on a feast, but it's also a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods - usually some combination of turkey, corn, cranberries, squash and pumpkin pie. Decorated with these dishes, the Thanksgiving table has become a secular altar upon which we worship America's pioneering character, a place to show reverence for the rugged Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in peace, sat with the Indians as equals and indulged in the New World's cornucopia with gusto.
But you might call this comfort food for a comfort myth.
The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist — the colonial minister Charles Woodmason called it "exceedingly filthy and most execrable." Our comfort food, in short, was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence.
"Clabber, butter, fat mushy bacon, cornbread," [Woodmason] wrote, "as for tea and coffee they know it not . . . neither beef nor mutton nor beer, cyder or anything better than water." . . . Woodmason noted that "the people are all from Ireland, and live wholly on butter, milk, clabber and what in England is given to hogs.”
So Woodmason’s derisive comments, quoted by McWilliams, refer not to the diet of the Pilgrims, but to the very different diet common in Appalachia on the eve of American Revolution. Clabber (a form of sour milk somewhat like cottage cheese or yogurt) was a common food in Northern England, but was treated as only fit for animals in Southern England. I located no evidence that the Plymouth pilgrims ate this staple of the Carolina backcountry diet. While the pilgrims had brought some bacon and butter on the Mayflower, the voyage was so poorly provisioned that it has been speculated that it was quickly gone after arriving. The Pilgrims probably had little or no milk, since they had no cows, though there is a small chance that they had a goat. And Woodmason’s complaint that the settlers had no coffee or tea would never have been made by a 1620s pilgrim since they had probably never tasted either one. In 1620, tea had not yet been introduced into England, and England’s first coffeehouse was founded in 1650 (there were 3,000 such shops by 1675).
Woodmason also complained that the food in 1767 backcountry Carolina was all boiled, but the Pilgrims favored roasting. And Woodmason was disgusted by the whisky drinking in western Carolina in the 1760s, while the Pilgrims didn’t drink whisky.
As for Indian corn, which was a staple of the Pilgrim’s diet, the sources I consulted do not support the notion of revulsion to that food either. In the very December 11, 1621 letter that described the 1621 Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow advises the next group of settlers not to bring more rice than they will need for the voyage because of the attractiveness of Indian corn:
Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, makes as pleasant meat as rice; therefore spare that, unless to spend by the way.
McWilliams goes on:
Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food — much less foods native to North America. Thanksgiving celebrations occurred irregularly at best after 1621 (the year of the supposed first Thanksgiving) and colonists observed them as strictly religious events (conceivably by fasting).
It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values.
If you read the original account of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, you can see that McWilliams is wrong: there is “evidence to support the holiday's early association with food,” in particular, “foods native to North America.”
We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads [here Winslow apparently means alewives], which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Winlow’s letter goes on to describe some of their other foods, many of which may well have been served at the first Thanksgiving:
We know that venison and fowl were served, both of the native American variety. We know that turkeys were plentiful in the early days, though we don’t know whether they were among the fowl served at the 1621 Thanksgiving. Since the holiday celebrated and followed the “fruit of our labors,” the account implies that Indian corn and barley were served in some form. Squash is reputed to have been common in the area at the time, but I believe that there were few mentions of it in early years of the Plymouth Colony, so a relative of a pumpkin may not have been served at the 1621 Thanksgiving. Given Winslow’s account of the Pilgrim’s diet, probably grapes, berries, or plums were served, and fish was probably served as well. As to cranberries, it is thought that Native Americans in the area were familiar with them, but since there is no mention of them, there is no reason to suppose that they were brought to the feast.
I never in my life remember a more seasonable year than we have here enjoyed; and if we have once but kine [cattle], horses, and sheep, I make no question but men might live as contented here as in any part of the world. For fish and fowl, we have great abundance; fresh cod in the summer is but coarse meat with us; our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter; we have mussels and othus at our doors: oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet [salad] herbs: here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas [raspberries], etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a damson: abundance of roses, white, red, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed.
McWilliams goes on:
The earthy victuals that Thanksgiving revisionists arranged on the Pilgrims' fictional table were foods that Pilgrims . . . would have rather avoided. . . . English migrants recoiled upon discovering that the native inhabitants hunted their game, grew their grain haphazardly and foraged for fruit and vegetables. Squash, corn, turkey and ripe cranberries might have tasted perfectly fine to the English settlers. But that was beside the point. What really mattered was that the English deemed the native manner of acquiring these goods nothing short of barbaric. Indeed, the colonists saw it as the essence of savagery.
From the colonists' perspective, Native Americans grew crops in an entirely corrupt manner. They typically prepared fields by setting fire to the underbrush and girdling surrounding trees. Afterward, they planted corn, gourds and beans willy-nilly across charred ground, possibly throwing in fish as fertilizer. . . . But the English, blinded by tradition, never got it - they just looked on in horror.
. . . And those fish! Why not salt them down and export them to Europe for a tidy profit? What was wrong with these people? The collective English answer - "everything" - honed the colonists' distaste for foods, especially corn and squash, that they quickly judged best for farm animals.
A similar culinary misunderstanding developed over meat. To be sure, the English frequently hunted for their meals. But hunting was preferably a sport. When the English farmer chased game to feed his family, he did so with pangs of shame. To resort to the hunt was, after all, indicative of agricultural failure, poor planning and laziness. Thus the colonists reacted with extreme disapproval when they saw Indian men adorned with paint disappearing into the woods for weeks at a time to track down protein. . . . The elk, bear, raccoon, possum and indeed the wild turkeys that the men hauled back to the village were, for all these reasons, tainted goods reflective of multiple agricultural perversions.
McWilliams offers absolutely no evidence for this supposed Pilgrim disgust with hunting. The accounts of the Pilgrim’s first years in the colony are replete with pride over their use of guns. Winslow describes how, at Massasoit’s request he shot a duck at 120 paces, and how, at the Native Americans’ request, the Pilgrims shot a crow at 80 paces who had been damaging the Native Americans’ crops.
And the idea that the 1621 Pilgrims were hesitant to plant fish with their corn is nonsense, directly contradicted in Winslow’s letter (as quoted above). Without some evidence, McWilliams' notion that the Pilgrims would have thought it was feasible to export tiny alewives to England rather than plant them to fertilize their corn strikes me as just plain ridiculous.
McWilliams stumbles on toward his conclusion:
As we have seen, contrary to McWilliams’s claims, Winslow, later governor of the colony, “highlighted his adherence to native American victuals” and their first Thanksgiving holiday was “a genuine culinary event.”
And under the circumstances no status-minded English colonist would have possibly highlighted his adherence to native American victuals — even if the early Thanksgiving holiday had been a genuine culinary event.
In researching this post, the only other blogger to have noticed that something was amiss in McWilliams’s account last year was Clayton Cramer, who noted some of the nonsense about guns.
So if you want to read about the experiences of the early Pilgrims, I’d recommend skipping the New York Times op-ed page and the 1767 source cited in the Times as a description of 1621 Pilgrim life (but which actually discusses the foods favored by poor Irish settlers in western Carolina in the 1760s). Read instead the original sources published in the 1620s, such as Mourt’s Relation and Edward Winslow’s Good Newes.