The best food historians can say is that turkey probably has been on Thanksgiving tables since the beginning, and its been remarkably constant – holding off any attempts to squeeze it off the menu. But many other historic Thanksgiving foods have come and gone from New England menus over the years as tastes change. Here are just five examples:
Lobster. Records of what was eaten at the first Massachusetts Thanksgiving meal in 1621 mention only that the Pilgrims ate fowl and venison. But most likely they also ate the other traditional foods that were common to their diet, and those included seafood such as lobster and mussels.
These have been mentioned as dishes at other early American Thanksgiving feasts. Of course today it's the unusual home where someone brings out the pot to boil or steam up shellfish for Thanksgiving.
Bear. All manner of game was served at early feasts. In 1714, the Rev. Laurence Conant of Danvers, Mass. recorded details of his Thanksgiving dinner with a neighbor, Mr. Epes. Bear was the centerpiece of the feast and was well enjoyed, though venison was also served. The venison, it turned out, was quite controversial as the deer had been shot on the sabbath. That required some consultation with Rev. Conant as to whether it could be eaten. In the end, hungry stomachs topped religious prohibitions against hunting for food on the Sabbath. The venison was gobbled up.
Pigeon Pasties. In 1779, Juliana Smith of Sharon, Conn. wrote to her cousin Betsey to describe the family's Thanksgiving meal. She noted that her dour grandmother had argued that as the American Revolution was depriving Connecticut citizens of their property, the day really should be one of fasting and prayer, "due to the wickedness of our friends and the vileness of our enemies." However, Juliana's father persuaded the family to instead have a Thanksgiving feast.
Smith, who would go on to marry New York's mayor Jacob Radcliff, outlined a sumptuous menu. She bemoaned the fact that beef was not on the menu, and hadn't been for three years. It was all needed by the army. Nevertheless, the table groaned under the weight of turkey, goose, port, venison and a wide range of vegetables. The menu also featured suet pudding, a far less common dish today, and, "two big pigeon pasties."
Pasties, for the uninformed, are also called hand pies. (Think of a pot pie without the pie tin). Sounds like Julia's were larger than today's common pasties.
Puffball Soup. Sarah Royer was the Martha Stewart of her day (1849-1837). A Pennsylvania native, her cookbooks and magazines, which were spread far and wide, guided households toward domestic perfection.
Her 1890 ideal Thanksgiving Dinner menu, published in Table Talk magazine, featured puffball soup. Puffballs are a family of mushrooms that are familiar to anyone who has spent much time walking the woods. Small ones provide a degree of entertainment when they are dry. If you crush them, a small puff of smoke-like spores is expelled. But larger ones can be diced and simmered into a tasty mushroom soup, though it's largely disappeared from Thanksgiving menus today.
Thanksgiving Pudding. Fannie Farmer launched her career as a cookbook author in 1896 with The Boston Cooking School Cookbook and what cookbook would be complete without a nod to Thanksgiving. Much of her sample Thanksgiving menu would be familiar to modern celebrants of the holiday. But one suggested dish has faded from memory. In addition to pies and other sweets, Farmer had a Thanksgiving Pudding in her cookbook.
Thanksgiving pudding was a simple dish of crackers, milk, sugar, eggs, butter, nutmeg, salt and raisins. To top it off, she recommended a brandy sauce.
Thanks also to the Food Timeline.