Food and Drink

The Pilgrims liked beer, but probably were not drunk on it at the first Thanksgiving

Beer stock

By now, we know that the long-mythologized first Thanksgiving dinner, thought to have been celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621, is mostly the stuff of legend - and not exactly like that pageant you might have put on in your elementary school auditorium.

What the Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag people ate at that dinner 400 years ago, in which they celebrated the harvest, is partly known. Venison, fowl, fish and corn? Probably. Mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping? Definitely not.

But as we contemplate which pinot noir to pair with our dry-brined, herb-rubbed turkey, we might wonder what they drank.

The Pilgrims have a dual reputation on this front. They are sometimes made out to be beer-mad drunkards, so desperate for their beloved suds that the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts instead of its intended destination in Virginia when the passengers and crew ran out of beer.

That origin story might be rooted in reality, but it was also helped along by . . . surprise, the beer industry. Anheuser-Busch ran advertisements in 1908 touting beer as the drink of “Our Pilgrim Fathers” and in the 1930s adopted a campaign that claimed “It Was Beer Not Turkey That Lured the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock,” according to the 2010 book “Lies, Damned Lies and History: A Catalogue of Historical Errors and Misunderstandings.”

Another representation of the Pilgrims is of stern, upright - that is, rather sober - types. And that isn’t too accurate either, notes Peter Mancall, a history professor at the University of Southern California who studies the colonists. “We know that they had a lot of children, so we know they were having a lot of sex,” he says. “We also know that they drank quite a bit - like other colonists, they drank beer.”

What was in the cups at that first Thanksgiving dinner, alas, wasn’t documented.

Kathy Rudder, an expert in the foodways and culinary history of the Pilgrims at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, says the answer isn’t terribly exciting: It was water, she claims. “The Pilgrims drank water,” she says. “They drank it at the first Thanksgiving, they drank it every day.”

The Pilgrims had reasons other than the lack of beer, she notes, for cutting their voyage short. And she points to mentions of the Pilgrims drinking fresh water when it was available as evidence that pure H2O was their drink of choice.

In “Of Plymouth Plantation,” the colony’s governor, William Bradford, wrote of a group of Pilgrims in 1620: “But at length they found water and refreshed themselves, being the first New England water they drunk of, and was now in great thirst as pleasant unto them as wine or beer had been in foretimes.”

Rudder also says that the crops they would have needed to produce beer or spirits hadn’t been established long enough to provide the higher-test beverages for that first dinner.

But Mancall says it’s possible that there was hard apple cider on the table at that first Thanksgiving. There are native apple trees, he notes, that could have been used to produce the beverage. There is little documentary evidence about that first Thanksgiving, he says.

One source on the goings-on was a letter from attendee Edward Winslow, who wrote only that the feast happened after the harvest, and that the governor sent men to hunt fowl “so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor.”

Suggesting that the Pilgrims might have had a tipple at their first Thanksgiving, Mancall says that the Pilgrims came from more urban places in England, where beer or cider was always preferred over water because it was more sanitary. The Mayflower had a supply of both beer and water, but the water had become contaminated by the time the ship neared the shores. “Pilgrims were not country people, and they’re figuring it out as they go along,” Mancall says.

Later, as their crops and food production became more established, the Pilgrims developed a clearer history with drinking. They didn’t abstain, but they frowned on excess, Mancall notes, and there is evidence that there was a good amount of drinking in the Plymouth colony. He points to a quote by prominent Puritan minister Increase Mather as capturing the ethos of the era: “Wine is from God, but the drunkard is from the Devil.”

Though what was considered excess isn’t clear either, he notes, since records of daily drink consumption weren’t kept at the time.

Four hundred years later, as we prepare for the holidays (and their occasional excess), that might still sound like a pretty good policy.