Plan A Traditional Thanksgiving Day

Lillian SteinBy Lillian SteinNov 6, 20170

The smell of roast turkey permeates the air. Thoughts of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes – golden with butter and a green bean casserole made with a cream sauce float along with that smell of turkey. These are some of today’s traditional Thanksgiving day dinner items. But the original Thanksgiving was far from the traditions we know of today.

First Thanksgiving

First Thanksgiving

They didn’t call it Thanksgiving back in the early days of the colonists. They did have a feast to celebrate the first harvest. It was supposedly a great feast for three days and involved the Native Americans, the Wampanoag Indians.

The great feast was never repeated. It never became a tradition such as we have today. But it did provide an outline, when later, Thanksgiving became a celebration of giving thanks.

No potatoes grew there in that time. While the Indians probably had berries and perhaps cranberries even, they more likely never had a cranberry sauce.

The Native Americans and Colonists ate deer, clams, corn provided by the natives, dried berries and fish such as cod, bass and eels. They also ate turkey but it was certain to be wild.

Other wild fowl (birds) such as duck, goose and even swans was a possibility. There would have been a lot of food. It had to feed about ninety native Indians and all of the colonists in the village or about fifty colonists.

Vegetables available would include corn, squash and pumpkin. Dried berries lasted a longer time than fresh and would have been a source of food for many.

While we, today, eat only certain parts of animals, the native Indians and colonists usually cooked the whole animal including the innards or the humbles.

Have A Traditional Thanksgiving

Have A Traditional Thanksgiving

While some practices the colonists had would not be practical and tasty by our standards today, some can be done to simulate the original feast.

Here are a few recipes and ideas for a traditional old-fashioned feast, later named Thanksgiving. Most of these are just an adaptation and are not exactly as they would have had it in the older days. But they are close enough to give an authenticity to the holiday.


Corn became a staple food in the diet of many colonists. The natives and colonists most likely used corn in a soup, in a bread-like cake made from ground up corn or roasted the corn in the husk.

Roast corn in the husks at 350 degrees in the oven. If you want tradition you could do this over a fire but it is recommended to oven-cook it. It will take anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the size and type of corn. Just watch for the husks to start browning.

Then check on the tenderness of the kernels. If it is to your desiring, then it is done. It can be scraped off the cob or eaten much as corn-on-the-cob is today.



Similar to corn bread, the johnnycakes as they later were known, were a good way to use the corn they grew. Take corn meal and  add twice the amount of flour into it. Add a small amount of baking soda and salt. Set the dry ingredients aside.

In another bowl add some milk, a couple of eggs and melted shortening or butter. The more authentic the fat is, the more authentic your johnnycake (or journey cake) will be. Instead of just regular milk added to the corn meal and flour, add buttermilk (or milk with a few tablespoons of vinegar added). Bake in a 400 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes.


Traditional succotash is made from corn and soaked beans. Traditionally, the corn and beans were soaked over night in a pot of water. The next day green onions and lard (probably bear fat) were added in and enough water so that just enough was made for the family. The pot then simmered for a while over the fire until the broth thickened. Meat could be added to give flavor.

Today you can make it pretty much the same way. Use Lima Beans, or red kidney beans and yellow corn. You can use canned corn for time convenience. Brown some beef or other meat. Once that is done, toss in some green onions. Add the beans and corn and enough water to cover all of it. Let it simmer for at least thirty minutes.



If you still want to serve turkey you can. Better yet, find someone who hunts for game birds like turkey. They can then supply you with a wild turkey.

Use a Dijon mustard salad dressing to coat the turkey. The ingredients in the salad dressing are a close resemblance to actual ingredients that the colonists and Wampanoag Indians might have used. Make your own salad dressing by adding two parts oil (or lard or fat) to one part vinegar. Add the spices such as mustard and salt and pepper.

Deer: Venison

The meat of the deer is known as venison. Venison was popular because the deer population was abundant in those days of the first Thanksgiving. There are actual accounts written that talk of venison. But how do you serve venison?

If you don’t hunt or can’t get access to your own venison, you might know someone who does have access to venison. You can cook venison steaks. It’s very similar to cooking a beef steak. Use onions and garlic and fry the venison steaks in butter. Butter, onions, and garlic were common to the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

Fish: Cod

Fish probably wasn’t the main dish at the first great feast because it was considered too common for such a great feast. But there was probably some fish. Cod was a common fish in that time especially for the Native Americans.

Serve fish much the same as you would by today’s standards using garlic, onions and butter. Here are a couple recipes you could use for cod.

Soak the cod in water for one to two days before cooking and serving if you can. This takes away the salty taste of cod. Be sure to change the water often. The more you change the water, the less salty the cod will be. Drain the fish right before you prepare it and pat dry.

Fry some onions and garlic in butter. When these are done, add the fish. Fry the fish in the butter until tender (breaks up easily with a fork).

Other Foods

Other Foods

Other foods were probably at the great feast. These would have been common place items such as dried fruits and nuts and berries.

Dried Fruits

Most fruits would be dried as they wouldn’t have been in season at the time of the great feast. Typical fruits would have been raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums and cherries. There may have been cranberries but these were typically added for their tartness. They didn’t use sugar to make cranberry sauce.

You could add cranberries to your meal without the sugar to add a tart flavor. Cooking them with the venison or cod would add flavor to the meals.


Nuts were an added value and added protein to the diet. Typical nuts available were walnuts, acorns and chestnuts. The Native Americans probably taught the first Pilgrims how to first boil acorns in water.

This removed the tannins, a substance that usually was unpalatable and made the acorns bitter. The acorns could then be eaten as is or they were ground up to make a flour for breads and cakes.

Chestnuts were probably roasted over a fire and eaten as a side dish. Walnuts were eaten much the same.

Typical Herbs And Seasonings Used

Typical Herbs And Seasonings Used

Since the first meats were wild, they might not have been as tasty. Spoilage was also common as no refrigeration was available. Herbs and seasonings were used to cover up the bad tastes or game taste of wild meat.

Typical herbs and seasonings used were onions, garlic, watercress and flax. Butter was usually used and some olive oil may have been found among the Pilgrims. But since Olive oil probably spoiled quickly it was probably sold for more stable and staple foods.

Traditions: New And Old

Not everything has to be done exactly as it was done in that first great feast. But starting your own traditional Thanksgiving day feast adds flavor and spirit to the meal. We can learn a lot from our ancestors.

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