If the Pilgrims had only known what a big deal Thanksgiving was going to become in America they would undoubtedly have taken some pictures. Even the menu has been lost to us, although Wampanoag oral history, plus a few Pilgrim grocery receipts found at archeological sites, suggest there was corn, beans and squash as well as fowl and venison. Beyond that there may have been chestnuts, sun chokes (“Jerusalem” artichokes), cranberries and a variety of seafood.
Many historians believe the Pilgrims would have all perished during the winter of 1620 if not for food provided by the Wampanoags, whose land they appropriated. In the spring of 1621, Wampanoags gave the Pilgrims crop seeds, as well as a tutorial (possibly an App; we can’t be sure) on the production, storage and preservation of food crops such as corn, beans, and squash.
That fall — we’re not even certain if it was October or November — Pilgrims gave thanks for Native American agriculture, and feasted upon its bounty for three days straight. The Wampanoags probably gave thanks that there weren’t more ships full of Pilgrims on the horizon just then.
Barley was the only European-sourced crop that the Pilgrims managed to raise in 1621. Unfortunately, they seemed unaware it could be eaten. Fortunately, they made plenty of beer out of it.
While corn, beans and squash, “The Three Sisters,” were, and are, grown by many native peoples in the Americas, other indigenous crops will grace American Thanksgiving tables this year. Maybe you’ll have appetizers out for company before dinner. Mixed nuts, anyone? Peanuts are a big-time Native American crop. Pecans and sunflower seeds, too. And everyone likes corn chips with dip, right? Those hot (and sweet) peppers and tomatoes in the salsa are Native American foods. Prefer dip made with avocado? Yep, another native food. And the same for popcorn.
Turkeys are indigenous to the New World, but so are a lot of the “fixings.” Pass the (New World) cranberry sauce, please. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy. White (“Irish”) potatoes are a New World crop, as are sweet potatoes. We can thank Native American agronomists for green beans Lima beans. Don’t forget the squash — Native peoples developed many varieties, including Hubbard squash and pumpkins, which are technically a winter squash.
Which brings us to the iconic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie — I think just about everyone is thankful for that treat. Ice cream is not from the New World, but some great flavorings are. Maple-walnut is one of the earliest ice cream varieties in New England, melding two indigenous flavors. Vanilla is from the Americas, and so is chocolate. If you add some toppings like strawberry, pineapple or blueberry sauce, you’ll be having more Native American foods for dessert.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, filled with family and gratitude. Among other things, we can be grateful to Native peoples and their crops. But please, don’t blame them if you have to loosen your belt a notch or two afterward.
Illustration: Part of painting “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).