How Honey Sweetened Early Thanksgiving Feasts
Most of us see Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude and good food, with the tradition beginning in the 1600s as a way to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and for simply surviving in the brave new world, but have you ever thought about what they ate?
Some 400 years ago, European settlers known as the Pilgrims arrived in the new world. Through a relationship with the Native Americans who taught the settlers how to cultivate corn, extract maple tree sap, catch fish from the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants, the colonists survived the harsh winter months of settlement, establishing a village in Plymouth.
Governor William Bradford decided to organize a feast to celebrate their first successful corn harvest. During the celebration, they were joined by a group of around 90 Native American allies, including the chief of the Wampanoag, Chief Massasoit. This joint celebratory feast is regarded as the "First" Thanksgiving in November of 1621.
History is a little fuzzy, and our high school textbooks might have left a few points off the table, so let us get to the actual "meat" of this controversial conversation: What was for dinner?
While we don't have a nicely preserved menu from that first Thanksgiving feast, we have a few records indicating a significant portion of the meal was fowl, such as geese, ducks, pigeons, and the now-standard turkey. But the truth is, the pilgrims were most certainly enjoying a feast of the air and the sea. In addition to our fine feathered friends, it has been noted that they dined on lobster, clams, mussels, and eels. The meal was rounded out with seasonal squashes, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and goat cheese.
Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower's sugar supply was diminished significantly by the fall of 1621, the meal did not feature any of our now-traditional desserts such as pies, cakes, or other would-be staples. Most historians don't even seem to favor the idea that there were many desserts at all during the First Thanksgiving, at all. At the time, the only available "sweet" sources were maple syrup and honey, so it can be deduced that any dessert dishes from the First Thanksgiving featured honey or syrup.
At other early Thanksgivings, according to some accounts, early settlers improvised by hollowing out pumpkins, filling the shells with milk, honey, and spices to make a custard, then roasting the gourds whole in hot ashes. Not quite the pumpkin pie you might crave endlessly until the next annual turkey day, but still fascinating nevertheless.
So, when exactly did the honey show up with the settlers? There is no record of honey bees on the Mayflower, but there was so much baggage that it's possible they didn't document it. The only clear evidence of honey bees arriving in America occurred on December 5, 1621, when the Council of Virginia Company in London wrote to the governor of Virginia indicating that beehives were being sent, which were then delivered to Jamestown, Virginia in early 1622.
So, was there honey on the menu at the First Thanksgiving? We can't prove it, be we also can't say for sure that it wasn't. Bees, honey, and beeswax have played such an essential part in global history that it is almost hard to believe that it wasn't. We do know for sure that honey is a great addition to include on your table now!
Visit our shop to view our entire assortment of honey and honey products, and whether it's your first or fiftieth Thanksgiving, we hope it's a happy one!