The First Thanksgiving: Eels And Passenger Pigeons?

In 2011, Megan Gambino talked to Kathleen Wall, “a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts,” about what the menu for the very first Thanksgiving would have looked like:

Turkey was not the centerpiece of the meal, as it is today, explains Wall. Though it is possible the colonists and American Indians cooked wild turkey, she suspects that goose or duck was the wildfowl of choice. In her research, she has found that swan and passenger pigeons would have been available as well. “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them,” says Wall. “They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.” …

It is possible that the birds were stuffed, though probably not with bread. (Bread, made from maize not wheat, was likely a part of the meal, but exactly how it was made is unknown.) The Pilgrims instead stuffed birds with chunks of onion and herbs. “There is a wonderful stuffing for goose in the 17th-century that is just shelled chestnuts,” says Wall. “I am thinking of that right now, and it is sounding very nice.” Since the first Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration, she adds, “I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day. That broth thickened with grain to make a pottage.” In addition to wildfowl and deer, the colonists and Wampanoag probably ate eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels.

Meanwhile, reviewing a history of turkey-carving, Heather Hess digs up some early advice:

The following instructions for cutting up a turkey first appeared in The Family Dictionary, or Household Companion (London, 1695), and were repeated verbatim in cookery books marketed at English housewives throughout the eighteenth century. Why not take a lesson from history this Thanksgiving?

Raise up the leg fairly, and open the Joint with the Point of your Knife, but take not off the Leg; then with your Knife lace down both Sides of the Breast, and open the Breast-pinion, but do not take it off; then raise the Merry-Thought betwixt the Breast-bone, and the top of it; then raise up the Brawn; then turn it outward upon both Sides, but not break it, nor cut it off; then cut off the Wing Pinions at the Joint, next the Body, and stick each Pinion, in the Place you turn’d the Brawn out; but cut off the sharp End of the Pinion, and take the middle Piece, and that will just fit in the Place.

If that doesn’t work, there is always the electric knife.