How To Eat and Drink Like a Pilgrim

ThinkstockPhotos-521771985.jpgHappy Thanksgiving to one and all from everyone at ABC Fine Wine & Spirits!

By now, of course, you’ve fully planned and probably consumed your Thanksgiving repast, so it’s no use for me to offer up opinions as to how you might want to cook your bird or what wines you should be enjoying with it. Instead I thought I’d offer up a few words on how the first Thanksgiving was celebrated.

There are, unfortunately, no surviving records of exactly what was eaten or drank at the first Thanksgiving, but with a little historical knowledge behind us we can offer up a number of probabilities.

It was a three-day event and took place in November 1621 when the newly-arrived pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indians gathered together to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. The colony’s first governor William Bradford noted in his journal that in preparation four men were sent out “fowling.” Wild turkeys (though not domestic ones) were plentiful in the area and were a common source of food, so yes – turkey may have been enjoyed on the first Thanksgiving. But it also may have been duck, goose or swan.

ThinkstockPhotos-483524342.jpgThe members of the Wampanoag tribe, it was noted, brought five deer with them, so venison would almost certainly have been offered. We must remember also that Plymouth was a coastal colony and for this reason it is extremely probable that seafood – mussels, clams, oysters, lobster and bass – was served.

Vegetables available at this time included onions, beans, carrots, spinach, cabbage, lettuce and possibly peas. Corn may also have been consumed but not as we enjoy it today. At the time corn would have been turned into corn meal and then boiled and pounded into mush or porridge. It may also have then been sweetened with molasses. Potatoes – either white or sweet – would not have been served. The potato was brought to Europe from South America but had not yet gained general acceptance in England in 1621.

Fruits that may have been offered were grapes, plums, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries and cranberries. Cranberries, yes, but not cranberry sauce because the pilgrims at this time had very low sugar supplies. Cranberry sauce didn’t become popular until about 50 years later. Pumpkins were a common food source for both the Wampanoag tribe and the pilgrims, but not in pie form as the pilgrims at that time had no butter or wheat flour to make a crust.

ThinkstockPhotos-98197050.jpgAnd now the big question – what would they have had to drink at the first Thanksgiving? Again, there are no surviving records. Probably not a lot of water, because water at this time was often unsafe to drink, at least until they learned, many years later, to boil it first. Beer was the preferred (and safer) choice, and the Mayflower was known to carry beer. Most likely, however, any beer brought from the ship would have gone off by this time, and early crops of barley and hops that the Pilgrims planted had failed. Other sources suggest that wine might have been their drink of celebration, but there is little evidence of this at the time.

ThinkstockPhotos-506134749.jpgThe most likely beverage served at the first Thanksgiving was hard apple cider. Apple cider was a staple in England during the 16th and 17th centuries (and indeed continues to this day). Casks of it were often kept aboard ships as, unlike beer, cider would keep and indeed improve over time. It was also a preventative for scurvy, which was a very common ailment on long sea voyages. Finally, there were at least four types of apples native to Massachusetts at that time, so cider seems a definite possibility.

Come to think of it, apple cider has a pleasant crisp acidity and effervescence that will not only cleanse the palate but brighten and enhance the flavors of your feast. As the jury remains out in this matter however, I think you can safely enjoy your Thanksgiving meal with your own favored choice of beverage. Cheers! And don’t forget to give thanks in your own way!

Bill Stobbs, Wine & Spirits Supervisor

Follow me on Twitter @abcwinebills


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