When you think of Traditional Thanksgiving recipes, what comes to mind? Roast turkey with stuffing? Pecan pie? These foods are modern North American classics, but we’re going to take a trip back in time and look at recipes that the European settlers would have made during their first years on this continent.
Below you’ll find both plant-based and omnivore recipes (adaptable to any diet), made with a combination of imported ingredients, and foods that have sustained indigenous peoples for generations.
Which Foods Were Available to the Pilgrims?
When the Pilgrims first arrived in the area now called Massachusetts, they encountered the indigenous people already living there.
These were primarily the Wampanoag and Nipmuc people who lived all along the coast of what is now New England. They referred to their territory as “Wôpanâak” or “Nipnet,” and they had a wide variety of foods that sustained them.
Their cooking methods included boiling in clay, wooden, or stone vessels, as well as smoking, drying, roasting, and baking in coals.
Since they lived right on the coast, they harvested much food from the sea. Staples included fish such as salmon, haddock, cod, bass, sturgeon, trout, and eels, as well as mussels, oysters, clams, crabs, scallops, lobsters, seaweed, ducks, and geese.
In the nearby forests, they hunted game birds such as quail and turkey, as well as rabbits, deer, moose, and bear.
These indigenous people were both hunter-gatherers and farmers and thus made good use of the wild plants available to them and grew crops to supplement them.
For example, they would have gathered nuts, seeds, and fruits, and cultivated corn, beans, and squashes. As far as seasonings went, there wasn’t much variety available to them.
As such, they would have had salt (from the sea), wild oregano, ramps, mint, thyme, and sage. They would have also tapped maple and birch trees for syrup, and collected honey.
The Pilgrims would have brought a number of new ingredients with them, which they could have used to create their Thanksgiving recipes.
For example, they brought grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, as well as seasonings like pepper, rosemary, dill, and parsley, plus some cherished ingredients such as yeast (for ale and bread baking), sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
They also brought numerous vegetable and herb seeds with them so they could cultivate them here, including garlic, onions, carrots, peas, beans, and cabbages. Additionally, they would have kept the seeds from the apples they carried on the journey.
While some North American foods would have been familiar to them (e.g. duck, goose, and various nuts and berries), many other foods would have been new. As such, they would have had to get creative, combining centuries-old cooking and baking techniques with entirely new flavors and textures.
Mid-17th Century Thanksgiving Recipes
The recipes we’re sharing here are some dishes they would likely have eaten and shared during their first few years in the new world they were settling into.
1. Flint Corn Frybread
While sweet corn has soft kernels that can be eaten right off the cob, flint corn has to be ground down into flour to use it. The Pilgrims would likely have adapted the Wampanoag recipe with a bit of wheat or rye flour, as well as herbs or spices they brought with them.
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (use a multi-purpose gluten-free flour if needed, with a pinch of xanthan gum if the mix doesn’t already contain it)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups warm water
- Oil or fat for frying
Combine the cornmeal, flour, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add warm water to the dry ingredients, a few tablespoons at a time, stirring continuously until a soft dough forms.
Knead this for a few minutes until it gets smooth and elastic. Place this dough into a greased bowl, cover it with a slightly damp cloth, and let it rest for about an hour.
Cut the dough into 6 to 8 equal portions, and roll into balls. Flour a flat surface, then flatten and roll each ball into a disc that’s between a quarter and a half-inch thick.
Heat oil or fat in a deep pan or skillet on medium-high heat. Use a spatula to place the discs into the hot oil, one at a time.
Fry for around 2-3 minutes, then flip and fry for an additional 2-3 minutes. Both sides should be cooked to a golden brown.
Remove each disc from the hot oil or fat and drain them on paper or other towels.
Serve warm, either savory or sweet. You can top your frybread with sugar, syrup, jam, or preserves for a sweet version, or toppings such as salsa, pate, cheese, onions, etc. if you prefer savory fare instead.
- Sweet Frybread: Add sugar or honey to the dough mixture for a sweeter version
- Savory Frybread: Add herbs such as dried thyme or rosemary for a savory twist
2. Msickquatash (Succotash)
This dish honors the “three sisters” guild of corn, beans, and squash grown together in harmony. You can either serve it as is or over a bed of wild rice.
- 2 cups of corn kernels (canned or frozen)
- 1 cup of canned beans, rinsed
- 1 cup of winter squash of your choice (butternut, acorn, etc.), diced
- 1 onion, chopped finely
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or fat
- 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine (dairy or vegan)
- Heat the oil over medium heat, then add the onion and sauté until it’s translucent.
- Add the corn kernels, beans, yellow squash, and garlic to the pot, then stir well to combine.
- Add the dried sage and thyme, salt, and pepper
- Pour in just enough water to cover all the ingredients, then bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes or until the squash is tender and the flavors are combined well.
- Stir in the butter until it’s fully melted.
- Serve hot, garnished with chopped fresh herbs, if desired.
3. Roasted Sunchokes/Jerusalem Artichokes
Sunchokes are the tubers of Helianthus tuberosus: a sunflower indigenous to the northeastern United States and Canada.
They would have been a staple food for many indigenous tribes throughout the eastern woodlands. This recipe is retrieved from the Native Foods cached website, and is likely similar to some of the Thanksgiving recipes the settlers would have tried.
- 2-3 large sunchokes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons of animal fat or vegan alternative
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Optional: herbs such as thyme, rosemary, or sage for added flavor
- Preheat a fire pit or oven to 400°F
- In a large bowl, mix together the chopped sunchokes, fat, salt, and pepper until the sunchokes are evenly coated with the fat and seasonings.
- Place the mixture on a baking sheet or in a cast iron skillet and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until the sunchokes are tender and lightly browned.
- Remove from heat and serve hot. Add herbs such as thyme, rosemary, or sage for added flavor if desired.
4. Sassamanesh: Cranberries and Butternut Squash
Cranberries were a staple food for coastal people, and this sweet vegan dish would have been a harvest festival favorite. The recipe is from the Many Hoops website.
- 1 butternut squash
- Cooking oil
- 1 cup cranberries – fresh, frozen, or dried
- 1/2 cup cranberry juice (unsweetened)
- 1/3 cup maple syrup
Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise, peel, and remove seeds. Cut the squash into bite-sized pieces.
In a skillet, add corn oil and squash and cook over medium heat for about ten minutes, frequently stirring until the squash is almost tender. Add cranberries and juice.
Heat to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer until squash is tender—about 5 minutes. Stir in maple syrup and serve.
5. Wild Game Sobaheg (Stew)
The first year the pilgrims lived in their new settlement, the harvest shared with them included venison, ducks, geese, and swans. This recipe is from the Food for Hunters culinary blog:
- 3 pounds of wild game meat (venison, duck, quail, goose, turkey, pheasant, etc.)
- Vegetable oil or fat
- Kosher or sea salt
- 1 onion, peeled and halved
- 8 to 10 cups of water
- 14 whole, raw chestnuts
- 1 pound of butternut squash or pumpkin, cut into large cubes (use carrots if you don’t like the taste or texture of squash)
- 1 (15.5-ounce) can of great northern beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups of hominy, drained
- 10 juniper berries, toasted and ground
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Sage, thyme, oregano, or other herbs to taste
Coat the bottom of a large heavy-bottomed pot with cooking oil and heat over medium. Pat all meat dry with paper towels, season generously with salt, and brown for a nice sear on all sides, in batches. Return all the meat to the pot and cover with water. Add the onion.
Bring to a boil and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer covered for about two and a half to three hours or until all the meat becomes tender. Cooking time will vary depending on the type and age of game used, so check for tenderness periodically.
Skim off any foam and scum that float to the top.
Meanwhile, cut across each chestnut shell and cover with water in a small saucepan. Boil chestnuts for 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
Working two or three nuts at a time, leaving the rest in the hot water while you work, peel off the outer hard shell and the inner paper-like membrane; the membrane is bitter and becomes difficult to peel when cooled even slightly.
Transfer all chestnuts to a food processor and grind as finely as possible. Set aside.
Back to the stew: remove meat from bones, if any, and discard bones. Discard onion. Stir in butternut squash, hominy, beans, and ground chestnuts.
Simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until squash becomes tender but not mushy. Simmer longer for a thicker stew, or use more ground nuts. Or add water/chicken stock for a thinner stew.
Season your sobaheg with ground juniper berries, thyme, sage, salt, and pepper to taste.
6. Roasted Cod
Cod was another staple food and was traditionally roasted in a grill frame made of sticks and woven reeds. The pilgrims would have added pepper and possibly garlic or onion to the locally available seasonings.
- 1 cod fish (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 1/4 cup of water
- 1/4 cup of salt
- 1/4 cup of pepper
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 2 tablespoons of dried sage
- 2 tablespoons of dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons of dried rosemary
- 1/4 cup of cooking oil or melted fat
- Clean and gut the cod, and split it down the center to open it up like a book.
- In a small bowl, mix together the water, salt, pepper, sage, thyme, garlic, and rosemary.
- Place the cod on a wooden grill, and brush the mixture of herbs and spices all over the fish. Alternatively, spear each fish with a soaked, non-toxic wooden branch, wrap it in a cotton cord so it doesn’t slip off, and brush it with seasonings.
- Place the grill over a fire or position the speared fish over hot coals, and cook the cod for 2-3 hours, turning occasionally, until it’s fully cooked and flaky.
7. Mussels or Quahog Clams in Broth
Since the Wampanoag people had access to so much seafood, mussels would likely have been on the menu whenever they were readily available. Although you may not have considered shellfish as one of your Thanksgiving recipes, they’re definitely worth trying!
- 2 pounds of fresh mussels or quahogs
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
- 1 cup of fish or vegetable stock
- 1 cup of water
- 1 tablespoon of dried thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Start by cleaning the shellfish by scrubbing the shells under cold running water. Discard any that are cracked or that don’t close up when tapped.
- In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and minced garlic, and sauté until translucent and fragrant.
- Add the fish or vegetable stock and water to the pot, along with the dried thyme. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Carefully add the cleaned shellfish to the pot, making sure they’re fully submerged in the broth. Cover with a lid and cook for 5-7 minutes or until they open up.
- Transfer the cooked mussels or clams into serving bowls with a slotted spoon, discarding any that didn’t open during the cooking process.
- Season the broth with salt and pepper to taste, then spoon it over the shellfish, ensuring that each bowl has a generous amount.
- Serve hot, accompanied by crusty bread or cornbread so no broth goes to waste.
8. Dried Fish Soup
This recipe is from the official Wampanoag government website. It incorporates garlic and onions (which the pilgrims would have brought over, as mentioned, which you can substitute with dried ramps if you collected some during the summer.
- 1 lb dried fish (such as cod or haddock)
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil (fat, olive oil, etc.)
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups canned corn kernels (optional)
- 1 cup chopped cooked pumpkin or squash (optional)
- 2 cups canned beans, rinsed (optional)
- Cream (optional)
- Rinse the dried fish under cold water and soak it in water for at least 2 hours to rehydrate it. Drain and cut the fish into small pieces.
- In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent.
- Add the thyme, oregano, salt, and pepper to the pot and stir to combine.
- Add the rehydrated fish pieces to the pot and stir to combine with the spices and onions.
- Pour in the water and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the fish is tender and the soup has thickened slightly.
- If you’re using them, add the corn, beans, and/or squash to the pot and simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors to combine.
- Serve the soup hot, garnished with chopped fresh herbs and/or cream if desired.
9. Nasaump (Cornmeal Pudding)
This Wampanoag cornmeal porridge or pudding has a texture somewhere between grits and oatmeal, and is one of the most versatile Thanksgiving recipes on this list. You can sweeten it with either honey or maple syrup, add nuts, seeds, and berries as desired, and either use a bit more or less water to thicken or thin it. The recipe is courtesy of The Gingered Whisk.
*Tip: Mix your cornmeal with a bit of water to create a paste before you cook it, much like creating a roux. This will create a smooth pudding instead of a lumpy one.
- 1.5 cups cornmeal, either yellow or white (or both!)
- 1 cup berries: blackberries, cranberries, blueberries, or a combination of all
- 1/2 cup chopped nuts and seeds – any combination of walnuts, pecans, or sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 3 cups water
- In a medium-sized pot, mix the cornmeal with just enough water to form a paste.
- Add 1 cup of water and mix thoroughly.
- Add in 1/2 cup berries.
- Heat over medium heat to simmering and cook, stirring continuously, for 10 minutes, or until the desired consistency has been reached. Continue adding more water bit by bit if needed, whisking or stirring constantly.
- Divide into bowls and top with remaining berries, nuts and seeds, and a generous drizzle of maple syrup, birch syrup, or honey.
For additional indigenous recipes from the East Coast, and more information on the first Thanksgiving, check out the following books and websites:
- Cape Cod Wampanoag Cooking
- Many Hoops
- This Land is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving
- Clambake: A Wampanoag Tradition (We Are Still Here)
- 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (National Geographic)
As you enjoy your meal, take a moment to remember that Thanksgiving isn’t a time of celebration for everyone. Many indigenous people regard the holiday as a time of mourning.
The story of Thanksgiving is full of myths about a happy and harmonious relationship between the settlers and the native people. For example, several Wampanoag already spoke English and had fought with slave traders who had invaded their land previously.
The relationship between the native people and the invaders was an uneasy one based on necessity that eventually deteriorated, resulting in King Phillip’s War.
Enjoy your feast, but remember the complicated history between the native people and European settlers.