Photo: Offset/Mark Weinberg
When one thinks of the very first Thanksgiving feast, lovingly prepared by pilgrims to give thanks for the hospitality shown them by their Native American hosts, a classic bread stuffing likely factors into the menu.
Yet that’s probably not what happened. To start, wheat flour was rare in those days, which meant that the kind of stuffing familiar to us — buttery cubed bread enriched with herbs, garlic, and turkey drippings — simply wasn’t a possibility. But the problems don’t end there.
“There’s no such thing as the original Thanksgiving feast,” explained Andrew Smith, a culinary historian and author of The Turkey: An American Story. “[It] is really an invention of the late 19th century.”
Yes, there really was an autumn harvest feast held in 1621 that was attended by the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians, but the menu hardly looked like today’s Thanksgiving spread. Plus, the event was more about cementing a military alliance than showing thanks. (The pilgrims even “exercised arms” at the feast, which likely meant a target practice intended to show off their firepower.)
Various fall feasts were celebrated across New England during the two centuries that followed, although they were often held at different times between October and December (it depended on when a community’s harvest occurred) and there was hardly a codified set of standard dishes. A proclamation by President George Washington designated a national day of Thanksgiving in 1789 on November 26, but it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln officially made Thanksgiving Day a federal holiday, a rallying event to unify the country in the midst of the Civil War.
That said, the idea of stuffing a turkey would have been familiar to European settlers in the New World. Turkeys themselves are native to the Americas (and there’s even evidence that Aztecs stuffed them with fiery chilis, Smith said). When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men landed in the Americas more than a century earlier, they were struck by the plumed birds strutting all around.
“He takes one look at this bird and says, ‘This is really great — the male spreads his feathers a lot like the peacock does,’” Smith explained. This was especially exciting because peacocks were the chosen delicacy of European royalty at the time, and Cortés’s crew wasted no time exporting the bird across the Atlantic, making it the first New World food to be adopted in Europe. Given its physical resemblance to a peacock, Europeans prepared it in the exact same fashion: stuffing them, then roasting the whole thing.