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The REAL Feast

Washington & Lee University

As you plan this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, you might want to consider what the Pilgrims really ate. 

At Washington & Lee University, students got a taste of the original feast and found eel and beer were likely part of the meal, but turkey? Maybe not.

Before heading home for the holidays, anthropologist  Allison Bell invited her students to dine on what research shows the pilgrims actually ate.  

“It’s not even clear that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.  There might have been.  The governor sent four men fowling, and at that time probably  geese and duck would have been something that they encountered more easily than wild turkey.”

Potatoes were also absent, and sweet potatoes were unknown to the masses in England and Massachusetts.
 “Sweet potatoes were considered a delicacy at the time.  Only the wealthiest people would have had sweet potatoes.  They were even possibly considered an aphrodisiac in Europe in the early 17th century, having come from South America to Europe.”

Pumpkin pie was not on the menu.

“They would have used stewed pumpkin or  pompion as they called it, maybe some apple cider vinegar or a little salt, but it wouldn’t have been a sweet dish like what we have now.”

And seafood was plentiful. Executive chef Jay Young served steamed mussels, roast duck and game hen stuffed with pear, apple and onion, venison, lima beans, parsnips, carrots and black eyed peas.  He cheated a bit – adding a splash of white wine here and a dash of spice there – luxuries the pilgrims would not have had.

“Spices were almost like currency at one time, where you’re getting all of these unique spices from the Orient and the Middle East, so it wasn’t that prevalent.”

Putting this meal together was easy, he says.  The pilgrims used pretty basic cooking techniques, and lunch for 25 is a breeze for a guy who usually oversees meals for six hundred.  He personally prepared six ducks, four game hens, ten pounds of venison and all the fixings.

“This is what I’m here for.  This is the fun part.  You know, food is my love, it’s my passion, so it’s always exciting, always interesting, whether it’s duck of macaroni and cheese.”

Unlike the original Thanksgiving guests, students did not have beer or hard cider, but reviews were good.

For Kennedy Castillo, it was a challenge to master 17th century eating techniques.  “I liked eating my meat with a spoon. The pilgrims probably couldn’t afford forks, because they were pretty new at the time and mostly used in elite classes.”

No one wore traditional garb for the occasion, but if they had, Professor Bell says the look would have been far more exciting than commonly portrayed.  The pilgrims did not wear buckles on their hats or lace collars, but they did favor bright colors, as did the natives, who outnumbered surviving Englishmen at the table by a margin of two to one.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief