According to History.com, “Culinary historians believe that much of the [first] Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood.” Let that sink in for a second. Do you have seafood at your Thanksgiving dinner? Probably not—because you have turkey at Thanksgiving, because that’s what the pilgrims ate. Or did they?
The Murky Truth About Turkey at the First Thanksgiving
While exact records of the food items present at the first Thanksgiving do not exist, there are journal entries indicating a fowling mission took place. It’s assumed that turkey was brought back, but it could have easily been duck, goose, or swan that made it to the dinner table, instead.
Related Reading: 5 Alternative Birds to Replace Thanksgiving Turkey
Yes, the house of cards on which you’ve assembled your Thanksgiving traditions is crumbling. Repaint that old-timey image in your mind of Pilgrims at the long, wooden table—this time, to include seafood, deer, corn mush, maybe a swan, and cold pumpkin shells full of custard. Doesn’t exactly look like your contemporary Thanksgiving dinner, does it?
I say, let facts free you from the bonds of fallacy-driven tradition, and allow those same facts to shackle you to a more honest Thanksgiving protein: seafood! New England was chock-full of it—History.com notes that “mussels in particular were abundant” and easily harvested from rocky coasts, and that “lobster, bass, clams and oysters” might have been served at the first Thanksgiving, too.
So let them eat mussels! Or let me eat mussels, at least. I’ll be honest: If I showed up to Thanksgiving with the family, and instead of turkey, there were a big pot of Mussels with Fennel, Lemon, and Belgian Ale, I would be ecstatic (disclaimer: I am a pescatarian—so this would also mean I get to actually partake in the main dish). Served with some crusty bread, mussels are a crowd-pleaser for a seafood-loving crowd akin to, say, the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. These other seafood recipes will be just as welcome.
Related Reading: Don’t Cook a Turkey If It’s Tamales You’re Thankful For
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Seafood Recipes for Thanksgiving
If any modification to the (arbitrarily) traditional Thanksgiving turkey will be viewed as a personal affront to your family, you can play it safer by adding in mussels as an appetizer. Broiling mussels and serving them on the half shell as in our Broiled Mussels with Sweet Paprika Aioli recipe makes for a pretty and flavorful hors d’oeuvre, but our Mussels with Garlic and Breadcrumbs recipe might be even better since they evoke stuffing.
Just as likely as turkey, the pilgrims might have had bass for the first Thanksgiving dinner. And if they did, you just know they would have cooked the whole fish, with all the whole-fish flavor that comes with it. If you still have the grill out and usable around Thanksgiving, take advantage of how completely grill-able whole bass can be—no worrying about fillets flaking apart and falling through the grill grates! Get our Whole Grilled Bass recipe.
Or, if you’ll be doing all your cooking with the stove and oven, perhaps you can sacrifice some historical accuracy (you’ve been doing it for years, anyway!) and bake bass in foil pouches. The cleanup will be super easy, and the packets help infuse the fish with the flavor of herbs and spices.
Since we’re talking about modeling traditions off of a meal that was probably heavy on the seafood, we might as well go the whole hog (err…full flounder?) and have ourselves a clambake! I’m talking clams, mussels, shrimp, lobster, and more! Our Stovetop Clambake recipe includes lobster, but you can also keep it simple with this Easy Clambake recipe, which focuses on the first three seafoods I listed and can be prepared in less than a half-hour. Either way, a clambake is perfect for gathering with friends and family, and definitely pays homage to the foods available to the pilgrims at the time!
Finally, if your Thanksgiving style is more chic and intimate, what better way to serve elevated Pilgrim fare than with oysters? Use champagne vinegar to make a mignonette that highlights the flavors of fresh oysters, and top with prosecco for an extra-special touch. Get our Oysters with Prosecco Mignonette recipe.
Are you burning tradition to the ground? Or are you just being more honest, with food choices that are more in-line with those served at the actual first Thanksgiving? No matter what you serve, someone is going to be unhappy with change—but, isn’t that even more accurate to the experience of the pilgrims? So, serve that seafood, acknowledge the familial strife you’ve caused, and tie it back to that first horrible year of Plymouth Colony. Ultimately, it’s the most traditional Thanksgiving anyone could ask for!
Or you can wait a little longer and celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes in another month.
See our Ultimate Guide to Thanksgiving for other options, tips, tricks, and recipes.
Related Video: Seafood Dishes for an Italian Christmas Eve
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