No one really know what was on the menu that first Thanksgiving meal when the English colonists shared three days of feasting with the Wampanoag People in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. But Wampanoag autumn stew would have been a seasonal dish.
You may have vague memories of learning about the origins of Thanksgiving Dinner in elementary school as you cut out Pilgrim hats and turkeys from construction paper. You probably learned that the first feast of gratitude occurred between the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and some friendly “Indians” or native Americans who showed up with corn to go along with the prepared turkey. Or something like that.
According to the historic records at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, there is only one written record of that meal in 1621 and it is, at best, a passing reference to the feast that occurred sometime between September 21 and November 9, which was the time of harvest observed by the native Wampanoag People. The English town called Plymouth was right smack in the middle of the Wampanoag homeland. (And let’s not call them Pilgrims, since they didn’t use that term themselves until much later. They were “Separatists” who had separated from the Church of England. You can learn about the difference between Puritans and Pilgrims here.)
So here’s what happened: The colonists at Plymouth had just come through a very difficult first year. All but four of the original 22 English housewives had survived in a colony of about 50 men. Seeing that it was a bountiful harvest that autumn, Governor William Bradford sent four men out to hunt for wildfowl for a celebration. At some point, Massasoit, an important Wampanoag leader joined the festivities along with 90 native men for three days of entertainment, feasting, and diplomacy. This event is described in a letter dated in 1621 by colonist Edward Winslow to a friend in England and since that time has been noted as “The First Thanksgiving” by historians.
To the English in Plymouth that year, it was neither a first, nor a thanksgiving, it was simply a traditional harvest celebration.
Thanksgivings, however, were not unfamiliar to the English. They were often held as a solemn day of prayer in response to certain events, but they were a one-time occurrence with no particular date associated with it.
The English at Plymouth, according to the Plimouth Plantation, recorded their first thanksgiving in 1623 as a day of prayer at the end of drought and there is no mention of a food or feast in connection with it.
The Wampanoag, which means “Eastern People” or “People of the First Light” are comprised of a number of individual tribes spread across from what is today Weymouth, Mass., down to Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and parts of Rhode Island. Today there are about 6,500 Wampanoags and about half of them still live in Massachusetts, according to the US Census.
Giving thanks for the Creator’s gifts has been a part of native traditions since ancient days, and most certainly before the arrival of the English settlers. Thankfulness was an integral part of Wampanoag life. Any plant, animal, bird or fish used for food called for acknowledgement and gratitude for the lives that were taken.
During that three-day celebration when the Wampanoag mingled with the colonists, five deer were bestowed on Governor Bradford in a ceremonial presentation.
While we don’t know what exactly was served during that first communal feast – or even 100 percent sure that turkey was part of the meal – in “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie,” by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra Oliver is a recipe for Wampanoag Autumn Sobaheg. (“Sobaheg” is the Wampanoag word for “stew.”)
Wampanoag stew is comprised of seasonal ingredients and can be easily adapted to whatever you have on hand. You can swap out the meat for turkey, goose, duck, fish, or even shellfish. Variations of this dish are still made in Wampanoag households in New England today.
For the “warm-up Thanksgiving” party I attended with friends this year, I decided I wanted to bring Wampanoag Sobaheg as a novelty dish. I wasn’t sure where to get venison so I opted for a pricey bison steak from Whole Foods. A 10 ounce steak cost nearly $16.
One of my highlights from the past summer was touring the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma where nearly 3,000 bison cattle range free, grazing on grass.
If you’ve never seen hundreds of bison at full gallop pass in front of your car it is a sight to behold! Bison have haunches like a horse and can leap 12 feet into the air. About 800 of the cattle are “hulled” every year, so the herd stays at a sustainable number.
Bison meat tastes more “gamey” than corn-feed beef, but if you are willing to make the investment bison steak is considered a more environmentally sustainable red meat.
In any case, Wampanoag Sobaheg with bison was a hit at “warm-up Thanksgiving.” It makes a good side dish component, a spoonful is enough to satisfy the curious palate, even though I did have a bowl for leftovers. It’s very simple, with one seasoning: salt. The flavors meld together, the grits create a cohesive dish, and the walnuts give a pleasant nutty finish.
May your Thanksgiving be full of communal grace with a taste of adventure.
(Recipe on next page.)