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Thanksgiving 1621: Not A Turkey In Sight

The first Thanksgiving meal likely included lobster, eels, mussels and oysters, according to food historian Kyle Cherek.

For most Americans, the Thanksgiving meal usually includes some variation of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. But food historian Kyle Cherek says if we think we’re eating a true representation of the first Thanksgiving feast of 1621, we’d be wrong.

Cherek says that first harvest meal in what is now Massachusetts was a seafood fest of lobster, eels, mussels, and oysters. Also on the table: venison, flint corn, wild plums, gooseberries, and grapes. These were the “delicious and accessible” options available to the Pilgrims and the Native Americans who were already living there, says Cherek.

Stuffing, a dish we now consider crucial to the Thanksgiving meal, didn’t appear in an American cookbook until 1792. And even then stuffing was mostly just old bread — no sage, onions or sausage to flavor it. Cranberries didn’t hit the scene until 1912 when lawyer and cranberry farmer Marcus L. Urann founded Ocean Spray.

And the turkey? Well, that noble bird did a lot of transatlantic traveling before it became the mainstay of our current Thanksgiving meal tradition. If you want to know more about how turkeys overtook Thanksgiving, we talked about the history of the bird last year - you can find a link to that conversation below.

Cherek says that despite the fact our Thanksgiving meal looks almost nothing like that first one in 1621, it’s his favorite holiday. “There is no exclusionary aspect to this holiday. It’s where we celebrate the deliciousness of what it means to be an American,” he says.

So no matter your culinary traditions, Cherek and all of us at Lake Effect wish you and yours a very happy Thanksgiving. Happy eating!

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.