Most of us have vague memories of elementary school lessons about Colonial Thanksgiving celebrations that probably involved pilgrim hats made from construction paper. Perhaps it’s time for a quick refresher?!
The feast considered to be the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth colony in 1621. It was referred to at the time as “The Harvest Celebration of 1621” rather than “Thanksgiving,” although regular feasts of thanksgiving were held throughout the Colonial era. (Thanksgiving wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.) The 1621 celebration took place after the Pilgrims had weathered their first brutal winter in the New World, followed by their first successful planting and harvest seasons.
Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery as a child—and as a result, spoke English— was one of the first Native Americans the members of the Plymouth colony encountered. He helped save the Pilgrims’ lives by teaching them how to plant native crops—including corn and squash—as well as how to fish in the bay and how to tap maple trees for their sweet sap. Squanto also helped the Pilgrims forge an alliance with the nearby Wampanoag tribe.
The menu at the first Thanksgiving celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag likely consisted of wild game (venison, goose, duck, pigeon, and turkey), seafood (mussels, clams, oysters, lobsters, bass, and eels), and a combination of wild and cultivated crops including chestnuts, walnuts, squash, beans, and dishes made from dried corn.
Over the decades the Colonies grew and expanded with the continued arrival of settlers from England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. The combination of treasured traditions and ingredients from their native lands, combined with indigenous game and new crops that thrived in the regions gave rise to new food traditions.
We crafted a Colonial-inspired Thanksgiving menu that weaves together all these ingredients and traditions into a true feast.
Main: Maple-Glazed Turkey with Gravy
Once the colonies were more established, they were able to import cane sugar, but the more plentiful, locally available sweetener was maple syrup. In this Thanksgiving centerpiece, the maple syrup is boiled down to make a sweet, crunchy crust that’s totally irresistible.
Side: Creamed Greens with Chestnuts
Kale, Swiss chard and collard greens are the kind of hearty greens that grew well in the New World and would have appeared in Colonial gardens. Chestnuts could be harvested in the woods and stored throughout the winter.
BREAD: Sage and Honey Skillet Cornbread
Since corn was one of the first crops the settlers learned how to grow (thanks to Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe), cornmeal was a diet staple, used for making johnnycakes, porridges, and more. The difficulty of growing wheat in the northern colonies meant that other breads were a rare luxury, but there was always cornbread.
Side: Smashed Root Vegetables and Caramelized Leeks
Potatoes were relatively new to the Colonists, but turnips and parsnips were garden staples. All three of these root vegetables were hardy storage crops that could be stocked away in the root cellar to sustain a family for a long fall and winter.
Side: Roasted Delicata Squashes and Lady Apples
In colonial days, “pumpkin” (actually, “pompion” or “pompkin”) was the catch-all word for squashes of all sorts. In this sweet and savory side dish, the “pompions” are in the form of pretty Delicata squashes. The savory kick comes from slab bacon, a tribute to the fact that pigs thrived in the New World and pork was a central part of Colonists’ diets.
Side: Herbed Cracker Stuffing
Crackers were a pantry staple in Colonial days—they could keep for months and months, unlike bread. In this stuffing, the crackers are mixed with plenty of sage, thyme, and parsley and moistened with a generous dose of butter and white wine.
SAUCE: Cranberry Relish with Pearl Onions
Native Americans had been growing and eating cranberries long before the Pilgrims arrived, but the first recorded instance of cooking them into a sweetened sauce to serve with meat shows up in the 1670s.
Desserts: Apple-Pear Pie with Walnut Crust + Spiced Custard Mini Pies
Apples were introduced from Europe but they grew marvelously well in the Colonies, and the British, Swedish, and Dutch settlers all brought their apple pie recipes with them to the New World. Walnuts – both wild and cultivated – thrived on the land as well.
Although the colonists cultivated pumpkins and other squash from their earliest days in the New World, and pies were already a well-loved part of their culinary repertoires, actual pumpkin pies did not make their way into American cuisine until the early 1800s. These spiced custard tartlets contain all the sweet spices we associate with pumpkin pie—nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and ginger—without the squash. Instead, the filling is a special-occasion combination of egg yolks and cream.
A Make-Ahead Schedule the Pilgrims Could Only Dream Of
Take advantage of modern appliances and get a head-start on the feast.
Up to a Month in Advance
Make and freeze the pastry for both the Apple-Pear Pie with Walnut Crust and the Spiced Custard Mini Pies. Thaw it in the refrigerator overnight when you’re ready to make the pies.
Up to a Week in Advance
Make the Cranberry Relish with Pearl Onions. Store in the fridge and spoon into a serving dish right before dinner.
Two to Three Days in Advance
Reduce the maple syrup for the turkey glaze and refrigerate in a microwave-safe container. When ready to use, pop it in the microwave for just long enough to make it liquidy again.
Cube and dry the bread, and chop and saute the garlic, onions, celery and herbs for the Herbed Cracker Stuffing.
Slice the squashes and the slab bacon for Roasted Delicata Squashes and Lady Apples.
Put the frozen pie doughs in the refrigerator to thaw.
A Day in Advance
Wash and chop the kale, chard, collards, chestnuts, shallots, and garlic for the Creamed Greens with Chestnuts. Dry the greens well so they don’t get slimy. Make the cream sauce and store it in a microwave-safe container. Reheat it when you’re ready to add it to the sautéed greens.
Make the Sage and Honey Skillet Cornbread.
Wash and chop the parsnips, turnips, and leeks for the Smashed Root Vegetables and Caramelized Leeks (sorry, potatoes will have to wait until the last-minute to avoid oxidation).
Bake the pies.
Assemble the stuffing. Stuff turkey if you so choose, and put the rest of the stuffing into a covered baking dish. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
While the Turkey Roasts
Make the Turkey Giblet Stock.
Peel the potatoes and finish making the Smashed Root Vegetables and Caramelized Leeks.
Cut the lady apples and assemble all the ingredients for the Roasted Delicata Squashes and Lady Apples on a sheet pan, ready to go in the oven as soon as the turkey comes out.
About 45 minutes before turkey is done, put the dish of stuffing into the oven.
While the Turkey Rests
Immediately turn the oven up to 400 degrees to cook the Roasted Delicata Squashes and Lady Apples.
Cook the greens and add the cream sauce to the Creamed Greens with Chestnuts.
Make the Maple Gravy.
Reheat the Sage and Honey Skillet Cornbread.
Carve the turkey.