Eel, venison, and pumpkin pudding: where to get a really traditional Thanksgiving

As we sit down to eat huge quantities of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries, we might want to remember that this traditional Thanksgiving feast isn’t so traditional. Like all traditions, Thanksgiving dinner has changed over time and has little in common with the event that inspired it.

Most history books mark the first Thanksgiving as the feast the Pilgrims had at Plymouth Colony after their first harvest in 1621, even though there had been a Thanksgiving feast at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, and various Thanksgiving feasts by Spanish settlers in Florida and the Southwest decades beforehand. Inconvenient historical facts aside, let’s look at what everyone ate on that “first”, most famous Thanksgiving.

No exact menu exists, but several accounts of the feast let us make a good guess at what they served, and even come up with a list of recipes. The Wampanoag tribe had saved the Pilgrims from starvation by showing them how to catch eels and gather food from the forest, so we can imagine eel would have been included. There’s also specific mention of wild turkey (much smaller than today’s hormone-stuffed factory turkeys), venison, and cornbread. Pumpkin pudding was also on the table. Pumpkin pie wasn’t invented until years later.

If this is all sounding tasty, why not try it out yourself? Plymouth, MA, runs a series of events every November to celebrate the season. This year they sponsored National Indian Pudding Day (cornmeal with molasses, yum!) to showcase what they call “one of the ugliest, yet great tasting, bicultural culinary treats”. There’s also a series of dinners with traditional fare, some of which you can still catch. If you’re too full to eat another bite, don’t worry because they’ll do it all again next year. You may also want to check out these other historic Thanksgiving places for their events.

Pass the Indian pudding, please, but hold the eel. I tried it in Denmark and I can’t say I’m a fan.