Eating History: The Evolution of the Thanksgiving Feast

Turns out the pilgrims didn't have any pumpkin pie, but they did have venison and passenger pigeon.

  • Postcard courtesy New-York Historical Society's Print Collection
  • Postcard courtesy New-York Historical Society's Print Collection
  • Postcard courtesy New-York Historical Society's Print Collection

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

We all learned the Native Americans celebrated Thanksgiving with pilgrims in New England in the 1600s, but this year marks the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving becoming a national holiday. In 1863, right in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the last Thursday of November would be a day to celebrate “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies,” as well as the soldiers and their families.

You could probably have guessed that the modern Turkey Day feast—Butterball birds, mashed potatoes, gravy, et al—was not what was served at the original feast, and that these “traditions” have been morphing for decades. According to Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended that first meal, there were various types of fowl (most likely geese and ducks) and venison. Governor William Bradford, another pilgrim, also mentions wild turkey, as well as Indian corn. The New York Times says there surely would have been eel, as well as possibly passenger pigeons—as Foodways Culinarian Kathleen Wall explains, “Passenger pigeons—extinct in the wild for over a century now—were so thick in the 1620s, they said you could hear them a quarter-hour before you saw them. They say a man could shoot at the birds in flight and bring down 200.”

Pumpkins and squash were also native to New England, though today’s familiar pumpkin pie would not have been present. According to Plimoth Plantation, “The earliest written pumpkin  pie recipes are dated after the First Thanksgiving, and they treat the pumpkin more like apples, slicing it and sometimes frying the slices before placing them in a crust.”

But soon enough, turkey established its place at the table. As you can see from these postcards from the New-York Historical Society’s Print Collection, it was certainly the centerpiece by the 1940s, and the imagery places an emphasis fattening the turkeys up for consumption. What, you expected middle class Americans to eat skinny, wild fowl? What did our forefathers suffer for if not to let us feed our turkeys cornbread, as one of these postcards suggests?

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