Mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and, of course, turkey may be the stars of your Turkey Day table, but the earliest Thanksgiving dishes looked—and tasted—slightly different. And sometimes included eel. Here are 15 of them.
1. TURKEY SOBAHEG
Though turkey played a role in the earliest Thanksgivings, it wasn’t always the star. One popular way to incorporate it into the meal was in a “Sobaheg” (the Wampanoag tribe’s word for stew). Among the dish’s ingredients: a half-pound of beans, white hominy corn, sunflower seed meats, and clam juice. (The experts at Plimoth Plantation even have a recipe.)
2. VENISON ROAST
It’s believed that venison roast, not turkey, was the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. In 1621, Edward Winslow recalled the feast he and his fellow Pilgrims shared with the Wampanoags, writing: “… Amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.”
3. ONION SAUCE
Onion sauce, which was very popular in the 17th century, was an early incarnation of the modern gravy. Used for dipping meats, onion sauce was made from onions and turkey drippings. More contemporary interpretations of it include sugar, vinegar, and breadcrumbs.
4. DRESSED CRAB
The earliest Thanksgiving menus leaned heavily on seafood, like eel, mussels, and dressed crab, a sweet delicacy that’s cooked in its own shell and seasoned with sugar and cinnamon.
5. APPLE PUDDING
is a sweet pudding, made from cream and apples, that is either baked or boiled in a pie-like dumpling crust. The recipe appeared in 1841’s Early American Cookery: The Good Housekeeping by Sarah Josepha Hale, who is considered the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
6. BOILED BREAD
Texturally, boiled bread is similar to a bagel or pretzel, in that it’s soft and chewy. Taste-wise, it’s a lot different: It’s a mix of cornmeal, flour, dried berries (like cranberries, blueberries, or currants—or a mix of all three), and crushed nuts or seeds. The mixture is then formed into patties, dropped into a pot of boiling water, and considered “done” when it floats to the top.
7. CURD FRITTERS
More like a crepe, a recipe for curd fritters—which calls for five eggs, curds from a soft cheese like ricotta or cottage, wheat or corn flour, salt, oil or butter, and sugar—appeared in The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, which was published in 1594.
Similar to porridge, Nasaump is made from cornmeal, berries, and crushed nuts or seeds and could be served as either a sweet or savory dish. Puritan Roger Williams described it as “a meale pottage, unparched. From this the English call their Samp, which is Indian corn, beaten and boiled, and eaten hot or cold with milk and butter, which are mercies beyond the Natives plaine water.”
9. BAKED EEL
Believe it or not, eels were a very important food for Native Americans and Pilgrims during the 17th century. They were a great source of protein, and especially popular during the long New England winters, when they were easier to catch. To make baked eel, chop an eel into three sections and season it with salt, pepper, and ginger. Put the pieces with butter and onions into a baking tin and cook for about an hour in a 360-degree oven.
10. STEWED PUMPKIN
One of the earliest recipes from New England, stewed pumpkin was known as a “standing dish” because it was eaten almost every day. In the 1600s, British traveler John Josselyn wrote about the dish in his book, Two Voyages to New England, in which he shared that it caused gas.
11. CHESTNUT FRITTERS
American chestnuts were considered much sweeter than their European counterparts, so Colonial cooks often incorporated chestnuts into desserts and snacks. They were also used in savory dishes like stuffing and fried chestnut fritters, which were served with oysters.
12. HASTY PUDDING
Also known as “Indian Pudding” when it came to Colonial America, Hasty Pudding is a sweetened porridge that was served as an appetizer. It was made from cornmeal or molasses, which were prevalent in the New World, instead of tapioca or oatmeal, which were not.
Dating back as far as the Middle Ages, syllabub was a very popular dessert in Colonial America. It’s a parfait-like treat made with whipped cream, white sugar, and lemon juice, but can also be made with Amaretto for an added punch.
14. MARLBOROUGH PIE
Before the modern apple pie, there was the Marlborough pie—a staple dessert that dates back to the 17th century. It’s an apple pie made with a rich custard base that was fused with sherry and shredded apples or applesauce instead of apple slices. Marlborough pie was served for the holidays, but fell out of fashion after the Civil War.
15. SKILLET CRANBERRIES
Made with either brandy or rum, skillet cranberries were a simple dish, and one of John Adams’s favorite foods. And yes, it’s as simple as it sounds: cranberries and raw sugar were baked in a skillet for over an hour, then deglazed with alcohol.