You Won’t Believe What Thanksgiving Staple Wasn’t at the First Thanksgiving

The 17th-century feast may not have been quite as tasty as the one we share today.

The first Thanksgiving, 1621, Pilgrims and natives gather to share a meal, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome FerrisPhoto: Shutterstock / Everett Historical

Our modern Thanksgiving tables are filled with an array of delicious dishes. Savory herbed stuffing, sweet-tart cranberry sauce and perfectly golden roasted turkey are only a few. But it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a steaming dish of mashed potatoes. Except when it was.

The First Thanksgiving Was Spud-Free

Believe it or not, there were no mashed potatoes at the harvest celebrations shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Not a single glob of fluffy, creamy taters nor a heavenly serving of sweet potato casserole graced the plates at that first autumn feast.

The reason? White potatoes were essentially strangers to North America. Originating in South America, the potato had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, but even then, it was virtually unknown to the 17th Century European table. When that historic Plymouth meal took place, potatoes had scarcely arrived on American soil (except in the hands of a few amateur botanists) and had certainly not made it into our country’s regular culinary rotation.

As for sweet potatoes, they had yet to approach our shores. The orange-hued tuber began its migration in the late 15th century, as it traveled with Columbus from the Caribbean to Spain. There, sweet potatoes were cultivated for years before being imported to England. And the sweet potato casserole wasn’t introduced to the American diet until the 19th century—well after the first Thanksgiving.

Want to know more? Find out the surprising difference between a sweet potato and a yam.

Here’s What Was Served

Although the menu of the first Thanksgiving is impossible to know for sure, surviving writings and educated guesses from experts can give us a good idea. Kathleen Wall, a foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, deduced that the harvest during the first Thanksgiving celebration likely included flint corn, a multicolored Indian corn. The corn would have been ground into grain and used to make cornbread and porridge. Other ingredients may have included pumpkins (sadly, there was no pumpkin pie!), squash, and root vegetables such as carrots, wild turnips, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and sweet flag.

White potatoes, while not on the first Thanksgiving table, became a part of the American diet within the next century, first appearing as a printed recipe in 1747. This Thanksgiving, celebrate the tater’s long-lived history with a bowl of comforting, creamy potato goodness. We’ve got plenty of great-tasting recipes to help get you started.

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