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Grim's Grub: Rethinking the Thanksgiving spread

The first Thanksgiving, 1621, Pilgrims and natives gather to share a meal, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1932.

Thanksgiving is a big deal in the United States, and everyone knows what a traditional Turkey Day spread looks like.

Of course, there's cranberries, green bean casserole, stuffing, a roasted turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, salads and probably Jell-O. That was the menu at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and that's basically the meal everywhere in the country, right?

As it turns out, no to both parts.

To give just a little background, which you might already know, this event is in commemoration of what is fondly known as "The First Thanksgiving" now, a meal between the colonists of Plymouth Colony and Wampanoag Native Americans in 1621. In fact, by 1621, the colonists had already been having an annual harvest celebration for 11 years or more, and you can bet they were thankful.

The true First Thanksgiving was actually pretty gruesome. At the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, November of 1610 and the arrival of English supply ships marked the end of a tragic year in American history. That year, known as "The Starving Time," saw the settlement's population dwindle by 80% from 300 people to just 60, and accounts from the supply ships say the survivors looked like little more than skeletons.


The disastrous starving time was a result of a likely drought and over competition for food supplies with the Powhatan tribe with relations getting so bad that the settlers were put under siege and unable to leave. Paul Harvey in his radio show said it got so bad that colonists resorted to extreme measures, including capturing and eating at least one native, eating corpses, and one man resorted to doing the same to his wife. Even the president of Jamestown, George Percy, leaves behind similar record.

Regardless, in 1621, what we celebrate as the first Thanksgiving thanks to pilgrims on the Mayflower was about 600 miles away. The spread was likely different from what we imagine, largely because of availability of regional foods and the earlier agricultural history.

The meal would have had meats that could easily be hunted and agriculture that was common to the natives as well as the colonists, The Three Sisters likely taking center stage. So, that means wild fowl and venison, at least five deer worth provided by Wampanoag hunters, according to an account by Edward Winslow, one of the colonists.

Turkeys are believed to have originated around Mexico and had already become domesticated by the English, who brought them to Plymouth. Cranberries can be found in that region, so that may be realistic, and beans are one of the three sisters, so something akin to casserole was possible. Pumpkin pie was likewise a possibility.

Given the nearness of the sea it should be no surprise that fish, lobster and clams were also present, but no ham because there were no pigs. Most of the bread would likely have been made from corn, yet another of the three sisters, though it was just as likely to be cooked into porridge.

It's likely that we remember turkey but forget the lobster because things had changed by the time Abraham Lincoln nationalized the holiday in 1863. Not all of the growing nation had access to the sea, so we remember those items that are more universal and less regional.

However, it should come as no surprise that the meal today varies a great deal by region. Northern climates where brassicas thrive might have sauerkraut, states with lots of Italian immigrants may have pastas. Then, of course, you have us here in Minnesota cooking up a mean wild rice casserole.



Baked Brie Bread Bowl

(Appetizer from the West Coast courtesy of

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 loaf of round sourdough bread
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 8 ounces of brie cheese

Mix spices and sugar in a bowl and set aside. Cut the top off the bread and remove the center to make room for the brie. Spread butter on the bread and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the spice mix. With a knife, make 2-inch cuts at 1-inch intervals around the edge of the bread. Remove the rind from the brie and place it in the center of the bread. Sprinkle the brie with the remaining spices and replace the top on the bread before baking 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees. Break the bread top and the scooped out bread into bite-size pieces and serve with the cheese.



Hasty Pudding

(Dessert from New England)

  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 3 tablespoons cornmeal
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup cold milk
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing

In a small pan, scald the three cups milk. Whisk in molasses and cornmeal and cook until thickened before removing from heat. In a separate bowl, combine egg, sugar, salt, ginger and cinnamon, then incorporate into your cornmeal mixture. Pour into a greased 1 quart casserole and bake 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Add milk and butter and continue baking one hour. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

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