The best food historians can say is that turkey was probably served on Thanksgiving tables since the beginning. Since then, it’s been remarkably constant, evading any attempts to squeeze it off the menu. But many other historic Thanksgiving foods have come and gone from New England menus over the years as tastes change.
Historic Thanksgiving Foods
Here are just five examples of historic Thanksgiving foods. You may be glad some of them disappeared from the holiday feast:
All manner of game was served at early feasts. In 1714, the Rev. Laurence Conant of Danvers, Mass., recorded details of his Thanksgiving dinner with a neighbor, Mr. Epes. Bear was the centerpiece of the feast and was well enjoyed, though venison was also served.
The venison, it turned out, created controversy as the deer had been shot on the Sabbath. That required some consultation with Rev. Conant as to whether they could eat it. In the end, hungry stomachs topped religious prohibitions against hunting for food on the Sabbath. They gobbled up the venison.
Records of the first Massachusetts Thanksgiving meal in 1621 mention only that the Pilgrims ate fowl and venison. But most likely they also ate the other traditional foods common to their diet, and those included seafood such as lobster and mussels. They had no butter, however, as their cows didn’t arrive until later.
Lobster and mussels have been mentioned as dishes at other early American Thanksgiving feasts. Of course today it’s the unusual home where someone brings out the pot to boil or steam up shellfish for Thanksgiving.
In 1779, Juliana Smith of Sharon, Conn., wrote to her cousin Betsey to describe the family’s Thanksgiving meal. She noted that her dour grandmother had argued that the American Revolution was depriving Connecticut citizens of their property. The day, therefore, should really be one of fasting and prayer, “due to the wickedness of our friends and the vileness of our enemies.” However, Juliana’s father persuaded the family to instead have a Thanksgiving feast.
Smith, who would go on to marry New York’s mayor Jacob Radcliff, outlined a sumptuous menu. She bemoaned the fact that beef was not on the menu, and hadn’t been for three years. The army needed it all. Nevertheless, the table groaned under the weight of turkey, goose, port, venison and a wide range of vegetables. The menu also featured suet pudding, a far less common dish today, and, “two big pigeon pasties.”
Pasties, for the uninformed, are also called hand pies. (Think of a pot pie without the pie tin.) Sounds like Julia’s were larger than today’s common pasties.
Sarah Royer (1849-1937) was the Martha Stewart of her day. A Pennsylvania native, her cookbooks and magazines, spread far and wide, guided households toward domestic perfection.
Her 1890 ideal Thanksgiving Dinner menu, published in Table Talk magazine, featured puffball soup. Puffballs belong to a family of mushrooms familiar to anyone who has spent much time walking the woods. Small ones provide a degree of entertainment when dry. If you crush them, they expel a small puff of smoke-like spores. But cooks can dice the larger ones and simmer them into a tasty mushroom soup.
Crackers in Pudding?
Fannie Farmer launched her career as a cookbook author in 1896 with The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, and what cookbook would be complete without a nod to Thanksgiving? Much of her sample Thanksgiving menu would be familiar to modern celebrants of the holiday. But one suggested dish has faded from memory. In addition to pies and other sweets, Farmer had a Thanksgiving Pudding in her cookbook.
Thanksgiving pudding consisted of crackers, milk, sugar, eggs, butter, nutmeg, salt and raisins. To top it off, she recommended a brandy sauce.
Need some new ideas for your Thanksgiving feast? How about trying something old — and authentic — from the New England Historical Society’s latest ebook. Available from Amazon (click here).
Thanks to the Food Timeline. This story about historic Thanksgiving foods was updated in 2022.