Seafood for Thought: The First Thanksgiving
In November my mailbox fills up with my subscriptions to many of the country’s premier food magazines, and, inevitably, they ALL have a turkey on their covers. It astonishes me how every single year, all of them circle back to the iconic dish (along with a battery of “new” side dishes) of America’s king of all eating (and family) days of the year. How exhausting it must be to annually come up with engaging recipes to a meal that is among the most time honored, routine, and traditional meals of all time. But: Where’s the Fish? Where’s the Seafood?
I often wonder how seafood is so overlooked on the biggest feast day in America. So I decide to investigate what happened on the First Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving” was a three day feast held in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to celebrate the colony's survival, brotherhood with the natives, and their first fruitful harvest. Let’s face it, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans located within the Plymouth Colony were located right on Cape Cod Bay, which back in the 1620’s was literally brimming with fish and shellfish –reports of lobsters being so abundant that they lined the beaches they could be picked up by hand and codfish so thick in the water they could be harvested in baskets. We know how important seafood was to the Pilgrim’s survival.
Seafood, an important staple at the first Thanksgiving
So in fact, most culinary historians strongly believe that seafood played a major part in the menu of the First Thanksgiving. Mussels thrived in New England and could be harvested easily off inshore rocks. Shellfish beds of clams and oysters would have been rich along the Massachusetts coast, along with a wealth of inshore lobsters. Striped bass would have been plentiful and commonly follow baitfish right into the bays. Historians believe that seafood was commonly smoked and dried at the time, so all were very likely present at the feast.2 Ironically, there were no potatoes as they hadn’t been introduced to North America at that time, no cranberry relish (they had no sugar), and no pumpkin pies, as an oven hadn’t even been built yet. The kicker? It is more likely the primary fowl served was duck, goose, or even potentially swan or pigeon.
So why did the seafood disappear from the menu over the centuries? Some speculate that with the advent of Lincoln’s approval of it as a National Holiday (it is believed he found it to be a national holiday of healing following the horror of the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War in 1863), the menus began to follow cookbooks which crafted recipes of the 1860s, not the actual menu of 1621. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poet, editor and author, is largely attributed to be the main advocate of making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Hale was also editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, , along with many cookbooks, where she published several recipes that likely set the tone of Thanksgiving menus to come 3. Indeed, these recipes – a combination of New England Tradition and Victorian food trends - may have greatly impacted the traditional menu we all think about some 200 years later. And she skipped the fish and lobster, largely because it wasn’t available outside coastal areas like here in New England.
Bringing home the hold days
So this year, honor our Pilgrim forefathers by putting some New England lobster and seafood on the table. Perhaps it will start a new tradition in your home that is actually closer to The First Thanksgiving. To inspire you, we’ve included our own exclusive Thanksgiving Seafood Recipes booklet, you can download it here:
- Winslow, Edward. “A Letter Sent from New England,” A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Ed: Dwight B. Heath. New York: Corinth Books, 1963. page 82