Honor the Heritage of Thanksgiving with Traditional Plant Foods
Learn about the real roots and heritage of Thanksgiving traditions by paying respect to Native American plant-based foods.
Though the story we were taught as children of America’s “first” Thanksgiving, when the Indians and Pilgrims sat down together to share that iconic feast in 1621 is more romantic vision than actual historical account, its spirit holds true today. The gathering of friends and family to break bread together in celebration and gratitude of the Earth’s bounty is a tradition that has lasted centuries in our hearts and in our homes. Although our modern Thanksgiving celebrations, 400 years later, are a bit different than that first historical event, we can still honor its roots and carry on the spirit of the tradition by celebrating with local seasonal plant foods—a nod to the wisdom of the past as we give thanks for the Earth’s nourishing and delicious bounty.
When the Puritan “Pilgrims” left England and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 to pursue a new world in which to practice their faith, they landed on a rocky shore inhabited by the Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoags’ life centered upon moving several times during the year to follow their food supply. In the spring they fished rivers for salmon and herring, during the planting season they moved on to forests to hunt deer, and in the colder months, they migrated inland to live on food that they stored during the year. The Wampanoag tradition was to greet visitors with respect by sharing their food and offering assistance.
Ill-prepared to live off the land, the Pilgrims eventually ran low on food, were living in poor shelter, and about half of them had perished during the winter. The Wampanoags helped by teaching the Pilgrims the skills they would need to survive, including cultivating corn and other new vegetables, building Indian-style homes, identifying medicinal and poisonous plants, and acquiring sap from trees.
Come fall, the Pilgrims were in pretty good shape, with plenty of food to last the winter and strong shelters to protect them from the cold. The Pilgrims decided to follow the English tradition and host a Thanksgiving feast to celebrate their bounty. Thanksgiving festivals were also an important part of Indian tribal celebrations. In fact, Thanksgiving feasts have been celebrated by societies since the dawn of time, when groups gave thanks to God for the bounty of harvest. For three days they feasted together, marking a time of friendship between two vastly different groups of people. That camaraderie and peace was short-lived, but so powerful that we have continued to keep it alive in our homes and our hearts today.
The First Thanksgiving Feast
What foods likely graced the first Thanksgiving table? Conspicuously absent would have been mashed potatoes (white potatoes hadn’t made their way to the region at that time) and pumpkin pie (for lack of butter, flour, and ovens). These are the foods that likely appeared on the Thanksgiving menu of 1621:
Seafood: Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster
Wild Fowl: Wild Turkey, Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagles
Meat: Venison, Seal
Grains: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots
Fruit: Plums, Grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, Chestnuts, Acorns
Herbs and Seasonings: Olive Oil, Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips
Bring the Seasonal Bounty of Plant-Based Foods to Your Table
Follow the example of the first feast by setting your table with the flavors of fall. Focus this year’s Thanksgiving dishes around the season’s best offerings, like carrots, squash, turnips, chestnuts, grains, nuts, and cranberries. Seasonal produce means they’re at peak flavor and color. Your plant-centered holiday table menu promises to please both the palate and the eye!
For other plant-based Thanksgiving inspiration, check out the following recipe collections: