The Time of Food : A Native American Thanksgiving

The actual site of the first Thanksgiving feast shared by English settlers and Native Americans in the New World has not been determined.

We know that John Smith and his group of Jamestown settlers in Virginia probably would not have survived the winter of 1608 without the help of Pocahontas and her father, Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Powhatan Confederacy.

It is also recorded that the Pilgrims, landing farther north at Plymouth in 1620, might well have perished without the generosity and advice of Squanto of the Pautuxet tribe and Chief Massasoit of the neighboring Wampanoughs.

Wherever the first celebration took place, one thing is certain: Early English settlers in both colonies had reason to thank the Indians for their survival.


The Algonquian-speaking tribes who greeted the settlers in Virginia and Massachusetts were skilled hunters, gatherers and farmers who treated the newcomers with the hospitality traditionally extended to guests, sharing with them both food and knowledge of how to survive in the wilderness.

The diet of the Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples of the Northeast included a wide variety of nuts, berries, seeds, roots, wild game and seafood. Lobsters, clams and mussels abounded in coastal areas, although lobster--such a delicacy now--was used mainly as bait when Indian men fished for bass and cod. Deer filled the woods.

If turkey was served at the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, it was probably a small, tough, wild bird, likely seized by hand as it gobbled up the kitchen leavings around an Indian village. An abundance of ducks flew overhead and paddled in the lakes and marshes.

Farming was an important part of life. The Iroquois people planted large crops of corn, beans and squash, which they called the Three Sisters (an Iroquois myth tells of three beautiful maidens who were often seen walking by moonlight around the fields).


Farming was largely women’s work. Mohawk women poked holes into the ground with digging sticks and sowed their seeds. When corn plants first sprouted, the women piled dirt up around their bases to support them and protect them from insects.

Later they planted beans--the second of the Three Sisters--near the corn so the bean runners could climb the corn stalks. Squashes were also planted around the base of the corn so that their broad leaves would keep the soil moist and cool.

We may not know the date on which the “first Thanksgiving” took place, but the date on which Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today was originally proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and set as an official federal holiday by a resolution of Congress in 1941.

And, while Americans set aside a single day to give thanks, Native Americans gave thanks at various times throughout the year in different parts of the country. Northwest Coast people, for instance, celebrated the first salmon run of the season by preparing a ceremonial feast of the first salmon caught.

On the Great Plains, the Sioux, the Cheyenne and other tribes held a feast whenever a young boy killed his first animal. Even the smallest bird or mouse was the main course. The feast recognized the boy’s new skill and his promise as a successful hunter.

The Chippewa in the Great Lakes region had feasts of wild rice in mid-September after a successful harvest. The Chippewa Indian community in Minneapolis and St. Paul still has an annual Mahnomin (the Chippewa word for wild rice) festival in the fall to give thanks.

The Iroquois people began a cycle of ceremonies with a maple festival in early spring and ended with the harvest festival in the fall, as the work of planting and gathering ended.

Thanksgiving feasts and ceremonies of various kinds go on today in many Indian communities throughout the country. Giving thanks is also an ongoing part of life. If Native Americans were skilled hunters and planters, they were also aware that they had to maintain proper relationships with the spirits of nature who were the source of their bounty. They thanked the spirits with the hope that they would be generous in the coming hunting or planting season.


The Thanksgiving menu given below (from the book, “Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking,” by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1991: $35)) includes a variety of dishes made from ingredients typical of the Native American cooking. Traditionally, food was not served in courses as we would serve it today. At an Indian feast, sweet and savory dishes were served together.

If one followed Indian custom, everything would be eaten out of the cooking pot, using one’s fingers or perhaps slabs of bread made from beech nut or cornmeal mixed with water and baked on hot stones.

Some of the cooking techniques and ingredients in the recipes were introduced into Indian diets by Europeans. The menu represents, then, the mixing of two cultures that took place because of that first Thanksgiving, wherever and whenever it was.

In early pumpkin soup recipes from Northeastern Woodland Indians, the pumpkins would have been baked whole in hot ashes. The peeled and chopped pumpkin would then be thinned with a broth made from wild fowl or game and seasoned with maple syrup and the dried and ground berries of the spicebush, a wild shrub that grows throughout the eastern woodlands. Although spicebush berries are not generally available in grocery stores, allspice has a similar flavor.


1 small (12-inch) pumpkin or 1 (29-ounce) can solid-pack pumpkin

1 to 2 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil (if using fresh pumpkin)

Salt, pepper


1 to 3 tablespoons maple syrup or honey

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground dried spicebush berries or allspice

3 to 4 cups chicken or beef stock

Thinly sliced green onion tops, chopped hazelnuts and roasted pumpkin and hulled sunflower seeds for garnish

If using fresh pumpkin, place pumpkin in baking dish and roast at 350 degrees until easily pierced with knife, about 1 hour. Allow pumpkin to cool. Slice off top and scoop out seeds. Clean pumpkin fibers from seeds and discard fibers.

Toss seeds with oil and season to taste with salt. Spread out on baking sheet and return to oven 15 to 20 minutes or until crisp and golden. Reserve for garnish (or for snacks). Scrape pumpkin flesh from shell and mash or puree in food processor if smoother texture is desired.

Place fresh or canned pumpkin in large saucepan. Season to taste with salt, pepper, maple syrup and spicebush berries. Gradually stir in enough stock to give soup consistency desired. Simmer over medium heat about 5 minutes or until hot. Serve soup in small pumpkin or squash shells. Garnish with green onions, hazelnuts and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

260 calories; 659 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 25 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 3.08 grams fiber; 56% calories from fat.

Crab apples held a special place at Northwest Coast tribal feasts. Steamed, then mashed and sometimes combined with berries, the crab apples were always served with eulachon (candlefish) oil to important guests. Traders and missionaries introduced both brown and white sugar. Brown sugar was made into cakes and later boiled down to a syrup. Lumps of brown sugar were served at feasts.

In this recipe, brown sugar syrup is used to glaze a Canada goose, which traditionally would have been spit-roasted on a green alder- or apple-wood branch held over a wood fire. Since this is impractical for most modern cooks, we suggest using a standard covered grill. We’ve also provided instructions for that most modern device: the oven.


5 to 7 pounds charcoal

1 (8-pound) wild Canada or domestic goose, dressed

2 teaspoons ground ginger

Salt, pepper

2 cups chopped dried crab apples or other dried apples

1 cup dried cranberries, optional

1/2 cup dried currants

1 1/2 cups alder or apple wood chips, soaked in water, optional

Brown Sugar Sauce

Prepare charcoal grill, with cover, using about 5 pounds charcoal. Rinse goose and pat dry. Remove any excess fat from body cavity. If using domestic goose, pierce skin along base of breast and thighs so fat will drain off. Rub goose with 1 teaspoon ginger and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

Combine dried crab apples, cranberries, currants and remaining ginger in mixing bowl. Stuff body cavity with mixture. Truss goose.

Arrange red-hot coals around large drip pan. Sprinkle damp wood chips over coals. Place goose on grill, over drip pan. Cover grill leaving all vents open. Cook, allowing 15 to 25 minutes per pound, until juices run clear with no hint of pink when thickest part of thigh is pierced. Baste with Brown Sugar Sauce during last hour of cooking time. During grilling, check coals every hour, and add few more if necessary to maintain heat. Allow goose to sit about 15 minutes before carving. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Goose may also be oven-cooked. Prepare bird as instructed in recipe. Roast goose at 400 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour, then lower oven to 325 degrees and roast 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours, until juices run clear with no hint of pink when thickest part of thigh is pierced. Baste with Brown Sugar Sauce during last 1/2 hour of cooking.

Brown Sugar Sauce

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons water

Combine brown sugar and water in small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until mixture comes to boil. Continue stirring and cooking 2 minutes, then remove from heat.

Each serving contains about:

516 calories; 136 mg sodium; 114 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 0.58 grams fiber; 48% calories from fat.

Watercress, a member of the mustard family, grows wild in brooks throughout the United States. Native Americans gathered a variety of wild greens, including watercress, and ate them raw in salads.

Northeastern Indian tribes made vinegar from the sap of the sugar maple tree. The sap was combined with buds and twigs and left in a sunny spot to ferment, then strained through a cloth. An Indian salad dressing might combine a vinegar made from fermented maple sap with a sweetener, such as maple syrup, honey, or sugar and oil.


2 to 3 bunches wild or cultivated watercress

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1/4 cup sunflower oil

1 green onion, thinly sliced

Salt, pepper

Rinse watercress in 2 to 3 changes cold water. Remove and discard tough stems. Combine vinegar and maple syrup in salad bowl. Gradually whisk in sunflower oil. Add watercress and green onion. Toss lightly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

100 calories; 56 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 grams protein; 0.11 grams fiber; 82% calories from fat.

Early European settlers in North America learned from the Indians to make large unleavened loaves of corn bread. The dough was spread on a board and placed beside the fire to bake. When cooked on one side, it was turned over and baked on the other side. Often the blade of a hoe was used both to prop up the board beside the fire for baking and as an improvised cooling rack on which the baked loaves would lean.

HOE CAKES (Algonquian Nokake)

2 cups water

2 cups cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, optional

Bring water to boil in saucepan. Stir in cornmeal, salt, butter and dill. Place in buttered 8-inch square pan and bake at 375 degrees 25 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

204 calories; 434 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.35 grams fiber; 20% calories from fat.

Though Native American pie making on the Great Plains dates back only to the 1800s (when reservations were established), mincemeat is closely related to pemmican, one of the most traditional Indian foods. In fish-eating areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, dried fish is used as the base. In the Great Plains, venison or buffalo jerky is pounded and mixed with dried berries and melted tallow.

This recipe for Venison Mincemeat Pie comes from Margaret Ketchum Walker of Cheyenne, Wy . , whose late husband, George Walker, was a member of the Sac and Fox tribe.


1 quart apple cider

2 cups seedless raisins

1/2 cup dried currants

1/2 cup dried tart or sweet cherries (if not available, substitute currants)

3 apples, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 cup chopped suet

1/2 pound ground venison

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cloves

1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1 unbaked (9-inch) double crust Traditional Pie Crust

1/2 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk or water

Combine cider, raisins, currants and cherries in large saucepan. Cover and simmer over low heat 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add apples, suet, venison, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. Simmer 2 hours longer (mixture will be about 4 cups). If making more than few days ahead, divide mixture in half and freeze.

Fill chilled pie crust with mincemeat. Arrange strips of top crust over filling and brush lightly with egg wash. Fold overhanging edges of crust over strips and flute edges. Place in lower third of 400-degree oven and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 40 to 50 minutes until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Makes 1 (9-inch) pie, or 12 servings.

Traditional Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons lard or vegetable shortening, chilled

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water

Combine flour and salt in mixing bowl. Cut in lard until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gradually stir in cold water until dough comes together. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Divide into 2 rounds, 1/3 portion for top crust and 2/3 portion for bottom crust. Wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling out, or freeze if making several days in advance.

Roll out larger round at least 10 inches in diameter and 1/4-inch thick. Line 9-inch pie plate. Cut remaining crust into strips for top, using serrated cutter, if desired. Chill crusts at least 1/2 hour.

Each serving contains about:

380 calories; 521 mg sodium; 32 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 1.04 grams fiber; 35% calories from fat.

Cranberries have long been used by Eastern Woodland tribes as a vitamin-rich addition to fall and winter dishes. As we researched cranberry recipes, we became intrigued by the combination of ingredients and cooking methods used in a recipe for cranberry pudding included in “Indian Cooking” by Herb Walker. The recipe adaptation given below produces a fluffy marshmallow-like concoction that will both please and mystify those who consume it.


3 cups cranberry juice

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup uncooked cream of wheat

1 cup Cranberry-Maple Sauce

Place cranberry juice and syrup in medium saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Gradually add cream of wheat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring constantly, 10 minutes longer.

Transfer to large mixing bowl and beat 10 minutes, until pudding is almost tripled in volume. Serve warm or chilled. Top with Cranberry-Maple Sauce. Makes 6 servings.

Cranberry-Maple Sauce

2 cups fresh cranberries

1 cup maple syrup

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground dried spicebush berries or allspice, optional

Combine cranberries, maple syrup and water in saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, about 15 minutes, until berries have burst and sauce has thickened. Stir in spicebush berries. Cool and serve at room temperature. Sauce is best made several hours in advance so that flavors blend. Makes 2 cups.

Each serving contains about:

340 calories; 13 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 0 grams fat; 85 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.38 grams fiber; 1% calories from fat.