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Less pumpkin pie, more boiled eel.

Clara Olshansky
November 21, 2017

Your Thanksgiving dinner may look even less like "the First Thanksgiving," shared by the pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621, than you may have guessed. You don't need to make turducken or a vegan turkey substitute to eat a meal that would have been entirely unrecognizable to 17th-century folks. In fact, even today's Thanksgiving staples like pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce would have been unrecognizable in 1600s America.

So what were the pilgrims eating? Apparently the First Thanksgiving, a three-day harvest celebration, would have included things like venison, fowl and may have even included eel and lobster. Here are some recipes from the 17th century—although "recipe" is a pretty generous word for these few-sentence-long cooking instructions—to see how they were really feasting back then. (It's worth noting that some of the more America-specific foods, like corn-based dishes, won't be included, because the first American cookbook wasn't published until 1796.)

Eel

Yep, the first Thanksgiving may have included a fair amount of eel. This 1670 recipe for boiled eel includes nutmeg, lemon, and berries. (Food historian Kathleen Wall told Smithsonian Magazine that eel was likely involved in the famous feast. "“They were drying shellfish and smoking other sorts of fish,” she added.) If you want a more 2017-friendly eel recipe, check out this Japanese-style eel and rice bowl.

Duck

Turkey is pretty much the only fowl we eat for Thanksgiving now, but the pilgrims' entrées may have included ducks and geese. A 17th century duck stew may have included onion, thyme and anchovies. Learn how to roast a duck here.

Goose

This 1669 goose recipe—scroll to page 212 for "TO PICKLE AN OLD FAT GOOSE"—includes bacon, ginger, bay leaves, and a pint of white wine. Learn how to roast a goose here.

Swan

The fowl options may have even included swan. This swan pudding recipe from 1615 (scroll down to "A Swanne or Goose Pudding") includes oatmeal, coriander, and rose water.

Venison

This venison recipe from 1623 involves roasting the deer meat in pork lard, bread crumbs and cloves.  On the other hand, this venison recipe from 2013 includes barbecue sauce and jalapeno-jack cheese.

Spinach

Vegetables at the first Thanksgiving may have included spinach, cabbage, turnips and more. This 1670 spinach Florentine recipe includes candied orange and cinnamon. 

Salad

For a bunch of salad recipes, which include spinach and cabbage, among other things, scroll down to "Section V: The best way of making all manner of Sallets" in this 1685 cookbook, "The ACCOMPLISHT COOK, or, The whole Art and Mystery of COOKERY, fitted for all Degrees and Qualities."

Cream of cabbage

This 1658 cream of cabbage recipe involves stroking the cabbage with a feather soaked in rosewater. For those of us who don't have bird feathers and rosewater lying around, this 2011 recipe for cabbage with parsley cream should be almost as good.

Pickled vegetables

Cabbages, as well as turnips, may have also been pickled. Learn how to pickle vegetables today here.

Bread

Cornbread stuffing may not have been a thing, but they definitely would have had bread at the table. This 17th-century recipe makes the bread with lemon, ginger and basil.

Lobster

This 1670 lobster recipe doesn’t boil the lobster—it roasts it (with oysters and anchovies on the side). If that sounds like an appealing Thanksgiving dinner, you can still pan-roast lobster today.

Ale

What's any major feast without booze? This 1677 ale recipe says that you should put twelve raisins in every bottle.