Jules is an accomplished playwright and radio-show writer. Here she shares traditional recipes for all to enjoy.
Celebrate Thanksgiving With Colonial-America Recipes From New England
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.
7 Traditional Thanksgiving Recipes
- Green Beans Splashed With Apple Cider Vinegar
- Squash Medley With Onion
- Colonial Fish Muddle
- Spiced Cider
- Colonial-Style Turkey
- Steamed Pumpkin Pudding
The Settlers Adopted the Cultivation Techniques of the Native Americans
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.
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.
- 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 a saucepan, combine the beans, pork, water, salt, sugar, and pepper.
- Cover and simmer until the beans are almost tender.
- Stir in the corn. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender.
- Remove the salt pork.
- Blend the cream slowly into the flour.
- Stir in the vegetables.
- Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly.
2. Healthy Green Bean Casserole (Splashed With Apple 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. They often consisted of freshly cooked green beans with a little salt—sometimes, salted pork and rings of onion were 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.
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar, or to taste
- Bacon crumbles
- Green beans
- Cook the green beans until just tender.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Splash the dish with apple cider vinegar and stir.
- Top with warm bacon crumbles.
3. Squash Medley With Onion
Squash and pumpkin were words often used interchangeably. This recipe, however, calls for yellow squash, zucchini and onions. Pumpkin is featured further down in this article.
- 1 yellow squash, sliced
- 1 zucchini, sliced
- 1 small onion, sliced into rings
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt to taste
- Melt the butter in a skillet and add the vegetables; sauté until tender.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Colonial Fish Muddle
Colonial fish muddle was an early American 'stone soup.' This fish recipe, known to have been in the earliest settlements, was a favorite recipe of George Washington's 100 years later. Fish muddle is still prepared in restaurants, bed and breakfast establishments, and countless kitchens throughout New England.
What's great about this recipe is that you can use whatever vegetables or meats are available to fill it out. In this way, it is a sort of 'stone soup'—delicious no matter what you throw in the pot.
- 2 tablespoons of meat drippings (drippings are traditional; you can use olive oil for a healthier take)
- 1 leek, thinly sliced (including the greens)
- 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 gardens, including parsley and rosemary)
- 20 fresh mussels, scrubbed and with the beards cut off
- 20 littleneck clams, scrubbed
- 20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 pound of firm-fleshed white fish, cut into cubes
- 1 pound of scallops
- Heat the drippings or olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the leek, celery, onion and pepper and sauté 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; bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare all the seafood and fish. Discard any mussels and clams that do not close when tapped.
- Place the mussels and clams in a heavy skillet over high heat and shake the pan, cooking until the shells open.
- Remove them from the pan and set aside. Strain the remaining liquid in the pan. You can strain using a coffee filter. Martha Washington used cheesecloth. Add it to the muddle.
Garnish and Spread
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, minced
- fresh homemade bread, toasted (or large croutons)
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- salt and freshly 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 5 minutes.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Ladle the muddle 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.
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5. Spiced Cider
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 and was 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 Christmas. On these special occasions, the homemaker would use some of their 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 the cider, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice until warm.
- Strain and serve.
Spiced Cider Punch Variation
To make a 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.
6. Colonial-Style Turkey
Turkey is one of the most commonly found foods on the Thanksgiving table. The bird is unique to North America, and the early colonists hunted wild turkey in the 1600s. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday in 1863, whereby turkey became a household staple; however, venison was eaten during the first Thanksgiving feast.
- 1 turkey
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1/2-stick melted butter
- 1 bunch celery
- 1/2 small onion, quartered
- 2 carrots
- Parsley sprigs, rosemary, sage leaves, and thyme leaves
- 1/4 pound salt pork
- 4 slices bread, torn into pieces
- Clean the turkey and remove the giblets.
- Rub the turkey with salt.
- Combine salt, pepper, parsley, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Rub the combination inside the turkey cavity, reserving the rest.
- To make the stuffing, chop the onion, carrots, and celery and combine the small, torn pieces of bread.
- Add salt and pepper and fresh herbs.
- Pack the body cavity with the stuffing and fasten the turkey with small lacing skewers and cotton string.
- Tuck in the wings and fold the tail in over the stuffing.
- Loosen the skin over the breast of the turkey. 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.
7. Steamed Pumpkin Pudding
Today, you can serve this delicious recipe with whipped cream. In colonial days, it was often served with fresh heavy cream drizzled over the top.
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 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 cooked pumpkin, mashed (or canned pumpkin)
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- Cream the butter and sugar together until light.
- Beat in the eggs.
- Combine the flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
- Mix the dry ingredients with the pumpkin and buttermilk.
- Add the combination into the creamed mixture.
- Spoon the mixture into a greased and floured 6 1/2-cup ring mold.
- Cover it tightly with foil.
- Bake at 350°F for one hour. Let it stand for 10 minutes.
The History of the First Colonial Meals
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 were 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.
The Starving Time
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 the 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.
How the Notion of Thanksgiving Has Evolved
My father, in addition to being a career army man, was also an archaeologist. 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 the kitchen fireplaces of those old foundations—my dad would tell me I was standing in the oven.
The basic early colonial-American meal consisted of stew cooked in a kettle hanging over the fire in those fireplaces. The stew would contain garden-grown root vegetables, and if lucky, there would be some kind of bird or game cooked with the vegetables.
The notion of separately cooked dishes in fancy meals for Thanksgiving would only come later when stoves would make their way to the colonies. But in the early days, stew was the usual item on the menu. Kettles, pit fires, cast iron cooking cauldrons over open fires—those were the cooking methods of the first colonial meals, which consisted of vegetables, fresh herbs, fowl, fish, and game.
I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as I do!