You may know that on November 25, 1621, the Plymouth colonists shared a feast with the Wampanoag people that came to be known as Thanksgiving. But do you know what they had for dinner? You may be surprised by what our ancestors ate.

Join us as we look at the evolution of Thanksgiving dinner in America.

The First Thanksgiving: Thursday, November 25, 1621

The three-day feast between the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag was about much more than eating delicious food. The two groups struggled to communicate in broken English and Wampanoag while racing on foot, firing weapons and drinking. Fun!

The food they ate was indigenous to the area. Here’s what was on the menu:

  • Meat: turkey, duck, goose, swan, venison, seal, lobster, cod, muscles, eel
  • Vegetables: onions, beans, spinach, cabbage, carrots, corn
  • Fruits: blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries, cranberries
  • Dessert: none 🙁 because the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled

A lack of dessert notwithstanding, the rowdy comradery of the festivities led to a treaty between the two peoples.

The National Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789

George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday, November 26, 1789. To get an idea of what our first president might have eaten, we look to a 1779 letter by Juliana Smith to her “Dear Cousin Betsey” describing a New England Thanksgiving. Juliana’s family shared the cooking duties for this feast hosted at a relative’s home:

  • Meat: haunch of venison, chine of pork, roast turkey, pigeon pasties, roast goose
  • Vegetables: onions in cream, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, raw celery
  • Dessert: mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, plum pudding
  • Drink: cider

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863

In the middle of the American Civil War, Lincoln was inspired by a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday — a change that did not go into effect until after The Reconstruction Era in 1870. According to Jennie June’s American Cookery Book, a typical Thanksgiving dinner included these delicious options:

  • Meat: oyster soup, cod with egg sauce, lobster salad, roast turkey, boiled ham, chicken
  • Vegetables: mixed pickles, coleslaw, celery, mashed potatoes, boiled onions, canned corn, sweet potatoes, roasted broccoli
  • Fruits: cranberry sauce, mangos, pickled peaches
  • Dessert: mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple tarts

Federal Law: Making Thanksgiving the Fourth Thursday of November

On December 26, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a joint resolution making it federal law that Thanksgiving is held on the fourth Thursday in November. The dinner Roosevelt might have had in 1941 would look pretty familiar to us. In the 1939 cookbook, The American Woman’s Cook Book, these dishes are on the Thanksgiving menu:

  • Meats: roast turkey, baked guinea hen, loin of pork, baked ham
  • Vegetables: celery, chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower au gratin, brussels sprouts, tomato and celery salad
  • Fruits: cranberry sauce, crabapple jelly, apple sauce
  • Dessert: frozen pudding, mincemeat pie, bonbons, pumpkin pie, candied orange peel, plum pudding
  • Drink: coffee

Some Things Never Change

No matter how the Thanksgiving dinner menu changes, it’s most important to connect with family and friends to give thanks. The holidays can be very isolating for those with hearing loss. If you or someone you love has hearing loss that necessitates the need for captioning, consider CaptionCall.