the First Thanksgiving Menu

Lacking key ingredients, the menu at the first Thanksgiving of 1621 was a bit different than the traditional turkey dinner of today.

In the fall of 1621 the English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag came together in Massachusetts for, what has subsequently become a much mythologized, 3 day harvest festival. That they were still alive following the deaths of half their fellow pilgrims the previous winter, having their supplies fortified by the Wampanoag, and then having completed a successful summer growing season, the pilgrims had a lot to be thankful for. What they ate as they gave thanks is debatable.

Definitely on the Menu

One food that was definitely served was venison. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag, had 5 deer brought to the event. Another meat on the menu was “wild fowl”, but exactly what kind of birds these were is unknown. It’s possible that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving but more likely it was goose or duck (or a combination). Other regional bird options at the time would have been swan and passenger pigeon.

Also definitely present was corn. The Wampanoag, who used the Three Sisters method of farming, had taught the pilgrims how to grow corn. As the pilgrims had grown a successful crop of Flint corn (aka “Indian corn”) it was cooked into a porridge, a bread, and/or with beans.

Maybe on the Menu

Given that the Plymouth Colony was by the water it’s very likely that seafood was also served. Eels, clams, muscles, cod, bass, and/or lobsters were very likely a part of the meal. It’s worth noting though that, unlike today, lobster was considered a food of last resort.

There were certainly vegetables & fruits on the menu but which ones were never specified (other than corn). Chestnuts, walnuts, beans, onions, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins, and various squashes were all grown in the area. Blueberries, plums, grapes, and raspberries were also grown in the area and could have been present. While cranberries might have been served cranberry sauce definitely was not since the colonists lacked the necessary sugar (and that cranberry sauce didn’t exist for another 50 years).

Not on the Menu

Even though pumpkins may have been present, pumpkin pie definitely was not. The pilgrims had neither the butter nor the flour necessary to make pumpkin pie – they didn’t even have an oven in 1621. Something pumpkin pie-esque that may have been prepared is a spiced pumpkin soup/custard cooked directly inside a pumpkin which was roasted on hot ashes.

There was no stuffing because, again, the colonists lacked the necessary flour. There were also no potatoes (mashed or otherwise). Potatoes came from South America and, while they had made their way to Europe by the late 16th century via the Spanish, they had yet to make their way to New England. There also weren’t any forks on the table since they too hadn’t made their way to North America yet (but on the upside nobody present had an overbite).

A historical reenactment of how to cook some of the foods present at the first Thanksgiving.

“Pumpkin” Spice

The autumnal flavor designed to resemble the spices in freshly baked pumpkin pie (but doesn’t contain any actual pumpkin).

Pumpkin spice does not contain pumpkin. It’s a blend of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and clove used as an ingredient to spice up pumpkin pies. This spice mix (or variations of it) goes back as far as colonial America. Unlike the spice blend you buy in the store however, most commercially produced pumpkin spice flavored products don’t contain these spices. Commercial pumpkin spice flavor uses chemicals to simulate these spices which replicates the taste of a freshly baked pumpkin pie.

One reason a synthetic flavor is used, in a latte for example, is that using the actual spices makes it taste a bit more like Indian masala tea (chai tea) instead of pumpkin pie. This synthesized flavor has been engineered to taste like the spices after they have been transformed by the pie baking process. Other reasons for using a synthetic flavor are reliability (the flavor is the same every time) and cost (synthetic flavoring is a lot cheaper than using actual spices).

He who controls the spice controls the universe

The craze for all things pumpkin spice began in 2003 with the limited release of Starbucks’ latest seasonal specialty drink, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). With the success of their winter themed Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte, Starbucks wanted an autumnal offering. Inspired by the flavors of freshly baked pumpkin pie the marketing team chose the name Pumpkin Spice Latte despite the drink not containing any actual pumpkin.

From big brands to small, just a few of the pumpkin spice products available for your autumnal seasonal needs.

In 2004 the drink was offered nationwide and became the most popular seasonal Starbucks beverage, generating an estimated $1.4 billion in sales as of 2017. It also started the flavor trend of all things getting a limited edition pumpkin spice variety. You can find candles, lip balm, cereal, soap, SPAM, chocolate candy, air fresheners, beer, and more all with pumpkin spice flavors.

Added info: Starting in 2015 the Starbucks PSL now contains some amount of pumpkin, but the flavor of the drink is still created using a pumpkin spice flavoring. Also, despite the autumnal seasonality of the drink, the PSL is on the Starbucks Secret Menu and you can buy it all year round.

Autumn Colors

Leaves change colors in autumn because the temperature drops and the hours of sunlight diminish.

The leaves of deciduous plants change color as summer ends and autumn begins. Cooler temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight trigger chain reactions in how plants operate. When leaves are green it’s because of an abundance of chlorophyll which absorbs sunlight and produces simple sugars to feed the plant. Autumn’s seasonal changes tell plants to produce less chlorophyll. Autumn also tells plants to start producing special corking cells at the base of each leaf stem. These cells reduce the flow of nutrients (including chlorophyll) into or out of the leaves and eventually completely seals off the leaves from the branches allowing them to fall off.

So as chlorophyll production decreases, and leaves become sealed off from the rest of the plant, leaves can no longer stay as green as they were. What color they become depends on the plant.

Yellows and Oranges

Chlorophyll is the big green machine, it outweighs all other chemicals present in a leaf. As there is less and less chlorophyll present, the carotenoids that have been present the whole time begin to be visible. These chemicals give leaves different shades of yellow and orange depending on the plant. Carotenoids are also what make carrots orange.

Reds

Unlike carotenoids which are present in leaves all year, anthocyanins are pigments specially produced just for autumn. The end of summer triggers the production of anthocyanins which give leaves the deeper colors of reds, purples, and even blacks. Anthocyanins also are what give cranberries, cherries, and blueberries their colors.

Top Down

Much like a corporation, change takes place from the top down. Higher elevations see leaves change colors earlier than lower elevations. This is because higher elevations reach the cooler temperatures necessary to trigger the change before the same plants in lower elevations which have warmer temperatures.

A tree turning color from the top down.

Change also takes place top down in another way. The top leaves of a plant will typically begin changing color before the bottom leaves. This is because the top leaves are furthest from the roots and, since it takes more effort to send chlorophyll to the top of a plant, the top leaves will start losing their green color first.

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” ― Albert Camus