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.

American Lobsters: From Trash to Treasure

North America lobsters were originally a poor person’s food.

While an expensive luxury today, the American lobster (aka Homarus americanus, the Maine lobster, Canadian lobster, northern lobster, etc) was once a food of last resort. Native American tribes of the northeastern coastal regions would use lobsters as fertilizer, fish bait, and when necessary food. European colonists also viewed lobsters as inferior last-resort bottom feeders. These “cockroaches of the sea” became relegated to food for the poor, for servants, prisoners, slaves, and sometimes even feed for livestock.

The turnaround for lobsters began in the 19th century with two new industries: canning and railroads. As canning became a viable way to preserve & ship food lobster meat became a cheap export from the New England area. Lobster meat was sent via rail to locations all around North America. This was followed by tourists visiting New England along some of the same rail lines. These tourists were able to finally taste fresh lobster meat instead of canned and lobster’s popularity grew. By the 1880s demand for lobster (especially fresh lobster which must be shipped alive) combined with a decrease in supply, lead to higher prices. This helped establish lobster as the expensive delicacy we think of today.

Expensive?

Like any commodity, lobster is subject to price fluctuations. While lobster typically maintains its cultural status as an expensive delicacy, this doesn’t always reflect the real cost. For example, the over abundance of lobsters around 2009 sent the wholesale price of lobster from around $6 a pound to half that – but it would have been hard to notice. Restaurants don’t typically reduce their prices because an ingredient has suddenly become cheaper.

However, when lobster is less expensive it does appear in unexpected places. Around 2012 Gastropubs included lobster in dishes such as macaroni & cheese, fast food chains included lobster on their menus, Walgreens in downtown Boston even sold live lobsters – all things you don’t usually see when a commodity is expensive. Today, even in years when lobster is abundant and the cost is low, it is still thought of as a luxury item.

Lobster Immortality

Lobsters are not immortal, but still pretty special

To point out that lobsters aren’t immortal may seem unnecessary unless you’ve previously seen internet buzz stories that lobsters might be able to live forever. Different species of lobsters have different lifespans but male European lobsters typically live around 31 years and females live around 54 years. This is far from forever. Aside from being killed by disease and fishing, how do lobsters die?

To understand the longevity of lobsters there are a few things to understand. To start, one of the remarkable things about lobsters is that, unlike humans and most other animals, lobsters continue to get bigger as they get older. Humans get to an adult size and stop getting taller, but for lobsters there is no upper limit on how large they can grow to be. Another remarkable thing about lobsters is that as they age they don’t show many signs of aging like we do. They don’t get weak, or slow down, or stop reproducing as they get older. Part of this longevity is how their cells divide. Unlike humans, lobsters continue to produce an enzyme called telomerase which helps repair chromosomes damaged during cell division. Having undamaged chromosomes likely leads to not feeling the effects of old age, and so lobsters just keep living normal lives … until they don’t.

Moulting

Lobsters are invertebrates with exoskeletons. In order for a lobster to get larger as it ages, it has to shed its current exoskeleton and grow a new one. It basically runs out of room in its shell and needs to start a new roomier one. Therein lies the problem. While there may be no physical upper limit as to how large a lobster can get, every moulting takes more energy than the time before and eventually a lobster just doesn’t have the energy to shed its exoskeleton. 10-15% of lobsters die during the moulting process because they run out of energy. For those older lobsters who just stop moulting, they begin to accumulate damage to the shells and eventually die.

An added bonus: Another question the internet seems to ask is if lobsters feel pain. Yes they do, and being boiled alive is not enjoyable for lobsters (it’s illegal to boil a lobster alive in New Zealand, Switzerland, and parts of Italy).

To end on a high note, while most lobsters are dark bluish greens and greenish browns, genetic mutations can produce some really spectacular looking lobsters. Similar to most animals, albinos are very rare (1 in 100 million). Unlike most other animals though, lobsters have another extremely rare coloration (1 in 100 million) where the lobster is pastel blues & subtle pinks called “cotton candy”.

lobster