Fact-Check: Foods at the First Thanksgiving Feast

In American history, the First Thanksgiving holds a place of high sentiment and significance. It is often portrayed as a harmonious gathering between the early settlers and Native Americans, with images of a bountiful table filled with modern dishes. What this familiar scene omits, however, is the truth of the culinary context of the period. In our investigation into the factual basis of the first Thanksgiving feast, we will study the historical presence of potatoes, the probability of cranberry sauce, and the origins of pumpkin pie in the meal. Relying on systematic review of credible sources, we will strive to bring to life a consistent picture of the inaugural Thanksgiving spread.

Potatoes at the First Thanksgiving

The Presence of Potatoes in the First Thanksgiving – Fact Check

The cherished annual tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving brings to mind images of turkey, cranberries, and, of course, potatoes. A series of questions often emerge around these delectable dishes, particularly about their historical presence on the festive table. One question that resurfaces quite frequently is, “Were potatoes part of the First Thanksgiving Feast?”

After an extensive examination of credible historical sources, valid fact-checking parameters lead us to conclude that potatoes were likely not present during the First Thanksgiving feast that took place in 1621.

The main body of evidence stems from two sources – historical data that details the earliest cultivation of potatoes, and firsthand accounts of the First Thanksgiving. The first records of potato cultivation, primarily of the white and sweet variety, come from the southern colonies and date back only to the 18th century, as per the National Potato Council. The First Thanksgiving, however, occurred about a century earlier, in 1621. Couple these facts with the absence of potatoes in records of the New World’s local produce in the early 17th century, and it becomes quite clear why the possibility of potatoes at the First Thanksgiving is unlikely.

Moreover, handwritten accounts of the First Thanksgiving by Edward Winslow, a participant in the 1621 feast, do not mention potatoes. In a letter to a friend, Winslow wrote, “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” He lists the food they ate, including venison, fowl, fish, and various crops such as corn, but there’s no mention of potatoes.

In fact, potatoes, both sweet and regular, were considered poisonous by many English settlers at the time, according to food historians such as Rynn Berry and Tom Hughes. It wasn’t until later in the 17th century when Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to popularize potatoes in Ireland, that attitudes towards this tuber began to slowly change.

Thus, citing historical evidence and firsthand accounts, the claim that potatoes were part of the First Thanksgiving feast has been fact-checked and determined to be false. While many of our present-day Thanksgiving dishes have evolved throughout centuries of tradition and cultural blending, the beloved potato dish probably didn’t make an appearance until later on in the holiday’s history.

Image of a Thanksgiving feast without potatoes

Presence of Cranberry Sauce

On the same note, queries also arise regarding an emblematic holiday dish popularly associated with Thanksgiving – cranberry sauce. The practice of revisiting history and inspecting traditional facts often uncovers startling truths or substantiates age-old stories. The question at hand – ‘Was cranberry sauce part of the very first Thanksgiving feast?’ – is one such example.

To clarify this, one must journey back to the early 1620s, the era when Thanksgiving was born, and evaluate the available resources. To establish facts, we delve into credible primary sources accounting the event and the limited cookbook records from that period.

Fruit preservation in forms of jams, jelly, or sauces was not unknown to indigenous populations or the English settlers during the early 17th century. However, sugar, a key ingredient in the cranberry sauce we relish today, was a luxury commodity back then. It was expensive and scarcely available. Therefore, although cranberries might have been available, the possibility of a sweetened sauce, akin to what we now understand as cranberry sauce, is meager.

The first known recipe of cranberry sauce appears much later in the year 1663 logged in ‘The Accomplisht Cook’, written by British chef Robert May, a good four decades post the First Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the most direct evidence comes from the letter detailing the Thanksgiving event by Edward Winslow once more. Following the same source that helped us establish the absence of potatoes at the feast, Winslow’s account of the First Thanksgiving feast fails to mention cranberries or any form of sweetened fruit sauce.

Another element worthy of consideration is the understanding of traditional native food preparation. Despite knowledge of cranberries, there is a limited record, if any, of the Native Americans preparing cranberry sauce for their meals.

To conclude, with a careful examination of the evidences and historical records, it becomes evident that although cranberries could have been present at the first Thanksgiving, cranberry sauce, as it is known today, was most probably not part of the iconic meal. The presence or use of cranberries remains anecdotal and uncertain. Henceforth, rendering the claim that cranberry sauce was served at the first Thanksgiving as “decontextualized”. Cranberries may have been present, but not in the familiar sauce form that we know and love today.


A bowl of cranberry sauce, a red sauce with cranberries floating in it.

Origins of Pumpkin Pie

Moving onto the hot topic of pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving feast, instantly one can conjure up the image of the creamy, spiced, sweet dessert sitting pretty at the end of the feast.

However, did it actually make its debut so long ago? To discern its actual presence, we must delve into the historical evidence and contemporary accounts.

The key ingredient, pumpkin, was indeed available during the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Historical evidence suggests, the early settlers were introduced to this versatile gourd-like squash by the Native Americans. A report from the English agriculturist, John Josselyn, in his writings, “New-Englands Rarities Discovered,” in 1672, mentions “pompions,” an old English term for pumpkins.

Does the availability of pumpkins verify that there indeed was pumpkin pie at the first feast? Unfortunately no, there is nothing to validate its presence. As we know, the only chronicle we have of the original feast comes from Edward Winslow’s letter dated December 1621. In it, Winslow lists corn, fowl, and deer, but no mention of pumpkin, or dessert for that matter, comes to light.

Furthermore, the typical pumpkin pie comprising a creamy filling housed in a crust requires another two ingredients, wheat for the pie crust and sugar for sweetening. Historical records show that the colonists had a depleted wheat supply due to the harsh winter preceding the Thanksgiving feast. Meanwhile, refined sugar was quite a luxury at the time, consumed sparingly, if at all, due to its scarce availability.

While the colonists may have stewed pumpkins and served them, the classic pumpkin pie, as we know it today, had not yet made it to the Thanksgiving table. The earliest reference to stuffing a pumpkin with honey, spices, and thyme and then baking it in hot ashes comes from a 1651 French cookbook. Moreover, John Josselyn included a recipe for a spiced and sweetened pumpkin dish in his 1672 book, but not a recipe for the pumpkin pie.

Thus, in terms of the claim that pumpkin pie was served at the first Thanksgiving, the fact-checking deduction would be false. The key ingredients and the record of such a pie only appear in literature of a later time. This deduction, however, does not dilute the charm of the pie as a traditional Thanksgiving dessert. It is perhaps safe to say that pumpkin pie, similar to potatoes and cranberry sauce, joined the Thanksgiving table years after the holiday’s inception, shaping the Thanksgiving feasts we recognize and savour today.

A delicious image of a slice of pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top.

Engaging in this historical journey sheds light on the contrast between the traditional Thanksgiving menu today and what the Pilgrims and Wampanoags likely ate centuries ago. Through robust examination of primary sources and careful analysis of seventeenth-century culinary habits, we have explored the roots of the widely assumed presence of potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. In demystifying the history of the first Thanksgiving feast, we hope to have enriched your understanding of this profound national occasion. The past, after all, can be as surprising as it is instructive, and we trust that this exploration will add depth to your future Thanksgiving celebrations.