Six Colonial Thanksgiving Recipes
A Menu To Celebrate Thanksgiving Like The First Colonists
The grocery store was in the backyard, the butcher was in the woods, and the seafood department was off the sandy shore. Far from the Norman Rockwell images so many Americans hold as the picture of Thanksgiving, the very first Thanksgiving looked much different. That first feast was celebrated with the food the colonists were successful in harvesting and hunting, and it utilized the cooking methods available to them at the time.
While you don't have to cook over an open fire pit, you and your family can still celebrate as the first colonists and Native Americans did, using the same vegetables, fruits, herbs and wild game. It may be a simpler take on the holiday, but it is also a very healthy one. This article shows how to prepare an early American Thanksgiving menu.
Vegetables: The Colonial Garden Was A Vital Element of The Early Settler's Survival
Today, we often have a hard time trying to fit in those servings of fruits and vegetables as laid out in the food pyramid. But in colonial days, the vegetable garden was the prime source of food for the settlers. The first attempts at gardening in the settlements often proved unsuccessful, and when that happened, the settlers starved. They depended on their gardens for sustenance. They ate fresh vegetables and fruits in the spring and summer. They also dried fruits and canned vegetables to sustain them through the winter months. Colonists also kept a root cellar to store root vegetables like turnips, onions and carrots for winter eating. (Potatoes would come later.)
The successful harvest of crops in New England—enough to sustain the colony through the winter—was the primary reason to celebrate that first Thanksgiving. The other reason to celebrate was to commemorate the relationships formed with the Native Americans, and to acknowledge that without using their cultivation techniques, that harvest would not have happened. Together, they shared in a feast from the fields, as well as adding wild game, fowl, and fish to the menu.
- 2 Cups Fresh Lima Beans
- 2 ounces Salt Pork
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar (if available)
- Dash pepper
- 2 cups fresh whole kernel corn
- 1/3 cup light cream
- 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- In saucepan, combine beans, pork, water, salt, sugar and pepper.
- Cover; simmer until beans are almost tender.
- Stir in corn. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender.
- Remove salt pork.
- Blend cream slowly into flour.
- Stir in vegetables.
- Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly.
Although it was a new food source, colonists quickly came to depend on corn as a vital staple. During the winter, colonists often ate corn, in one form or another, two to three times a day. They wouldn't just eat corn as a stand alone, they would blend the corn in with other vegetables, or use it in other recipes, like puddings, corn meal for bread, and porridge. Colonial women found many ways to spice up this versatile grain.
Green Beans Splashed With Cider Vinegar
Consider this a healthier take on green bean casserole. Green bean dishes have been part of Thanksgiving menus for a long time. The earliest recipes were simple. Green beans, freshly cooked, with a little salt. Sometimes, salted pork with rings of onion was added.
An early colonial favorite recipe called for freshly cooked green beans splashed with apple cider vinegar and lightly topped with crumbled bacon or pork.
Healthy Green Beans Cassorole
- 1 Tablespoon Cider Vinegar, or to taste
- Bacon Crumbles
- Green Beans
- Cook green beans until just tender.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Splash with cider vinegar.
- Stir. Top with warm bacon crumbles.
Which Colonial Dish Would You Prefer For Thanksgiving?
Squash Medley with Onion
Squash and Pumpkin were words often used interchangeably. This recipe, however, calls for yellow squash, zucchini, and onions. We'll save the pumpkin for the Colonial Pumpkin Pudding, later in this lens.
- 1 Yellow Squash, sliced
- 1 Zucchini, Sliced
- 1 small onion, sliced into rings
- 2 TBS butter
- salt to taste
- In skillet, melt butter, add vegetables, and sauté until tender.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Fish Was an Important Part of Thanksgiving
Colonial fish muddle was an early American "Stone Soup." This fish recipe, known to have been in the earliest settlements, was, one hundred years later, known to have been a favorite recipe of George Washington. Fish muddle has survived through all of the changes the New World has seen, and is still prepared in restaurants, bed and breakfast establishments, and, of course, countless kitchens along the east coast.
What's great about this recipe is that you can use whatever vegetables or meat is on hand to fill out the recipe. In this way, it is a sort of "stone soup", and is delicious no matter what you throw in the pot.
Colonial Fish Muddle
- 2 tablespoons meat drippings - (drippings are traditional, you can use olive oil for a healthier take)
- 1 leek, thinly sliced, including the green part
- 1 stalk of celery, diced
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 bell pepper, diced (remove seeds before dicing)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup fish stock (or bottled clam juice)
- 1 teaspoon of your favorite fresh herbs (herbs were in the colonial garden, including parsley and rosemary)
- 20 fresh mussels, scrubbed and with the beards cut off
- 20 littleneck clams, scrubbed
- 20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- One pound of firm fleshed white fish, cut into cubes
- 1 pound of scallops
- Heat the drippings or olive oil in a Dutch oven over a medium high heat. Add the leek, celery, onion and pepper and saute until the vegetables are soft but not brown.
- Add the wine and stir until all are well coated.
- Add tomatoes, stock, or clam juice and herbs, and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer for thirty minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare all the seafood and fish. Discard any mussels and clams that do not close when tapped.
- Place them in a heavy skillet over a high heat and, shaking the pan, cook until the shells open.
- Remove them from the pan and set aside. Strain the liquid remaining in the pan.
- You can strain using a coffee filter. Martha Washington used cheesecloth. Add it to the muddle.
- 1 cup Mayonnaise (or use commercial)
- 2 cloves of very finely minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon
- Toasted fresh homemade bread or large croutons
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Blend the minced garlic and tarragon with the mayonnaise and set aside.
- Add the shrimp, scallops, and fish to the muddle. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off the heat and stir in the parsley.
- Cover with a tight fitting lid and leave for about five minutes.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Ladle into bowls, and arrange the mussels and clams on top of each serving. Spread the seasoned mayonnaise on the toast and serve with the muddle.
One of the many uses of the apple in early America was cider. Apples were pressed to release the juice. Apple juice was popular to drink, as well as used to make vinegar, liquor and cider.
Cider is especially popular around the harvest season, when the apples were picked, so it is often associated with Thanksgiving and Chirstmas. On these special occasions, the homemaker would use some of her precious spices to make spiced or "mulled" cider, creating a delicious, warm beverage to sip during or after the feast.
- 1 Gallon Apple Cider
- 4 Cinnamon Sticks
- 1 Tablespoon Whole Cloves
- 1 Tablespoon Allspice
- In a large pot, heat cider, cinnamon, cloves and allspice until warm.
- Strain and serve.
To make spiced cider punch, simply chill the cider after cooking it with the spices. Place orange and lemon slices to float on top, and you've made a colonial spiced cider punch.
- 1 Turkey
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 stick melted butter
- 1 bunch celery
- 1/2 small onion, quartered
- 2 carrots
- Parsley sprigs, Rosemary, sage leaves, thyme leaves
- 1/4 pound Salt Pork
- 4 slices bread, torn into pieces
- Clean Turkey and remove giblets.
- Rub with salt.
- Combine salt, pepper, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Rub some inside cavity, reserving the rest.
- To make stuffing, chop onion, carrots, and celery, and combine the torn small pieces of bread.
- Salt and pepper, and fresh herbs.
- Pack body cavity with the stuffing and fasten with small lacing skewers and cotton string.
- Tuck in wings and fold tail in over the stuffing.
- The skin over the breast of the turkey can be loosened, and then place thin strips of salt pork just under the skin to keep the breast meat moist.
- Brush the top of the turkey with melted butter, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Steamed Pumpkin Pudding
- 6 tablespoon butter
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 11/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3/4 cup mashed cooked pumpkin (or canned pumpkin)
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- Cream butter and sugar together until light.
- Beat in eggs.
- Stir together flour, salt, soda cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
- Mix pumpkin and buttermilk.
- Add to creamed mixture.
- Spoon into greased and floured 6 1/2 cup ring mold.
- Cover tightly with foil.
- Bake 350 for one hour. Let stand 10 minutes.
Today, you can serve it with whipped cream. In colonial days, it was often served with fresh heavy cream drizzled over the top.
First Colonial Meals
Kettles. Pit fires. Cast iron cooking cauldrons over open fires. Those were the cooking methods.
Root vegetables, fresh herbs, fowl, fish, and game—that was on the menu.
My father, in addition to being a career army man, was also an archeaologist. I spent my youth going on digs with him all around early American settlements, specifically in Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, Virginia. Artifacts from fireplaces and chimneys were always the first things found when discovering a new building foundation. As a little kid, I loved standing inside of the kitchen fireplaces of those old foundations, and my dad would tell me I was standing in the oven.
Stew, cooked in a kettle hanging over the fire in those fireplaces, was the basic early colonial American meal. The stew would consist of root vegetables, grown in a backyard garden, and if lucky, there would be some kind of bird or game cooked with the vegetables.
The notion of separately cooked dishes, like we think of in fancy meals for Thanksgiving, would only come later, as stoves would make their way to the colonies. But in the early days, stew was the usual item on the menu.
The first Thanksgiving meal was a new notion in the early colonies. We remember the first Thanksgiving as a feast, because the meal, and the making of the meal, itself, was such a marked difference from the normal colonial fare. As a celebration, it needed to be different. The colonists and Native Americans celebrated their growing relationship, as well as their successfully growing crops.
Having learned some cultivation techniques from the Native Americans, the New England colonists were able to grow some of their English crops, as well as some native crops—a success not shared by so many other settlers. "The Starving Time," in Jamestown, for instance, nearly wiped out that first English colonial settlement. "The Starving Time" was named such because so many people died after crops failed, and there wasn't enough food to sustain the colony over the hard winter. Having learned from the mistakes of those Virginia settlers, the New England colonists tried cultivating both imported English crops along with native-growing plants. This success is what we continue to celebrate today as Thanksgiving.
My Favorite Colonial Cookbook
Filled with some of my favorite colonial recipes, as well as modern takes on them.