THE BLOG

If You Ate Like a Pilgrim, You Would Be Hungry on Thanksgiving

11/25/2013 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

The towns near Boston are filled with turkeys. Not the big, white meat, breasted varieties featured in the local supermarkets, but scrawny, big winged, dark brown varieties that roam up and down the neighborhood, terrorizing small pets and children. They seemed to have fallen from the sky like a local plague and reproduce as fast as mosquitoes. Is this what the pilgrims ate for their first Thanksgiving? If so, these 21st century varieties are now protected, so no one can go outside, bag one and take it home to roast. But even if this were allowed, it is doubtful that they would be worth eating, as they are mostly bone and feather.

Just about everyone acknowledges that our Thanksgiving feasts of today bear no resemblance to the foods eaten by the pilgrims and Native Americans in Plimouth (old spelling) in 1621. Food historians point out that there were no apples (no apple pie) or potatoes (much fewer marshmallows). Pumpkins were sliced and fried or boiled, not pureed into a pie, and if anything was stuffed into the cavity of a turkey, it was only onions and herbs. Bread was probably made from ground corn, and cranberries were not boiled and sweetened for at least another 50 years. Protein came from wild turkeys, and if they were as lean as the ones roaming around Boston, did not provide much meat. Waterfowl, as well as shellfish, were included in the meal, according to an account of witness Edward Winslow. It is doubtful that the lobster meat was dipped in melted butter, as they had very few cows until 1627, when a subsequent ship brought more livestock to the plantation.

Even though this meal was billed as a feast and indeed, the food was eaten over three days of festivities, if we were to eat such a meal today, we might leave the table hungry. The caloric value of fat-free squash and pumpkin, skinny turkeys, clams, cornmeal, and onions is probably less than the calories in one of our servings of stuffing and sweet potato casserole. To the pilgrims, coming out of a summer of near famine, this meal was indeed a feast and perhaps for the first time in months, they did not feel hungry. But for those of us who rarely leave a meal feeling hungry (unless we are dieting), the first Thanksgiving menu would feel like a partial fast, not feast, day. We are so used to eating more than enough at every meal we would not consider any meal a feast unless it were truly excessive.

This may be the reason why the weeks before Thanksgiving newspapers, magazines, cooking shows, and even radio programs describe recipes whose ingredients are excessively caloric or overwrought with too many ingredients and/or complicated cooking techniques. This would explain why menus for Thanksgiving go on for pages, and we are told to prepare so many different dishes that there is no room on the plate for all the food that is has been made. Indeed, a common question before Thanksgiving is, "What are you going to serve?" When I have replied with a menu that does not differ, except for the turkey, from a normal family get-together, I am looked at as if I am a food miser.

Shouldn't the pendulum of Thanksgiving feasting start to swing back to the simplicity of that first Thanksgiving? After all, we don't have to present a feast worthy of a Roman orgy to feel thankful that we have food on the table and shelter in which to partake of it. This is not to say that our turkeys should now resemble those wandering around greater Boston, or that our desserts should be boiled pumpkin rather than pumpkin pie. But if we bring simplicity back to the meal, then, like that first Thanksgiving, being thankful will be the most noteworthy aspect of the day.