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  • Writer's pictureBen Martens

The Real Thanksgiving Dinner

The Thanksgiving Day celebration that brings American families together on the fourth Thursday of November was made a federal holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. While the country was nearly being torn apart by the Civil War, President Lincoln thought that a holiday emphasizing unity and gratitude would help to boost national morale. However, at the time, the holiday was not envisioned as a recreation of the story of the “Pilgrims and Indians” meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Back then, it was merely a special time set aside for the giving of thanks. The association of Thanksgiving Day with English settlers sitting down for a meal with the native Wampanoag did not take hold in the public consciousness until after the 1890s.

Over time, the traditional Thanksgiving menu took on the character of a 19th century New England harvest festival, complete with root vegetables, cranberries, pies, and of course a roast turkey (the only domesticated animal native to North America). Other dishes, like sweet potato casserole, are Southern additions to the Thanksgiving table.

The meals that were shared by the Wampanoag people and the English settlers at Plymouth around 1621 almost certainly looked a bit different. Instead of farm-raised produce, the meals probably centered around roasted pumpkins and squash, wild game and lots of seafood! It is likely that the first Thanksgiving included far more lobster, eels, and shellfish than it did turkey, potatoes, or (sadly for them) stuffing.

Mussels, lobsters, clams, oysters, and bass were all plentiful in coastal Massachusetts and were major parts of the diets of local people. For a truly authentic New England Thanksgiving, here's a tasty old-timey recipe that might be a good fit.


A lot of old-timers in fishing communities along the coast of Maine say that corned and salted fish dishes are some of their favorite meals. These methods are particularly suited to fish like hake, pollock, and cod. Even the younger fishermen and their families absolutely love getting a taste of some of the traditional ways to eat fish.

Below is a quick recipe for corned fish from the 1976 cookbook, Island Cooking, which was compiled by the Orr's-Bailey Island Fire Department Women's Auxillary to benefit the Fire Department.

This particular recipe comes from Ginnie Johnson. FYI: I typed this recipe just as it is in the cookbook. So, if you need more information and have questions, you're just going to have to do as the old-timers did: figure it out and do your best! This may not seem like the healthiest recipe, but if any day is set aside for too many calories, it’s Thanksgiving. So enjoy!

To corn fish: Place 1 1/2- 2 pounds of fish in bowl and cover with a solution of quart water and 1 cup salt. Leave at least overnight. The next day, boil potatoes, fry salt pork crisp and drain. Cook fish (just bring to boil). Serve with pork scraps, fat, and onions sliced in a little vinegar with a little sugar. If there is any leftover, a nice hash can be made by frying potatoes and fish in pork fat. I add a little fresh onion, chopped. Turned several times to brown all sides.



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