How to Host a Throwback Thanksgiving

It's possible to enjoy a satisfying meal in the company of friends in a manner more pilgrim-esque than the typical modern affair. Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

As you’re probably aware, Squanto didn’t lead the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony to Safeway. He taught them how to live resourcefully off the land — how to grow corn and other crops, how to catch fish from local waters and how to survive when their stomachs were growling and the odds were stacked against them. And for that, they were thankful.

Given that the first Thanksgiving was held long before the advent of industrialized farming, stuffing in a box and Sandra Lee-inspired “tablescapes,” it was relatively scaled back as far as feasts go. And although we’ve become much-accustomed to the often excessive trappings of a modern Thanksgiving, it is indeed possible to enjoy a satisfying meal in the company of family and friends in a manner that’s, well, Pilgrim-retro in style.

Don’t worry about doing away with forks or foraging for nuts and berries in your neighbor’s yard if you decide to host an old-school Thanksgiving (but bonus points for authenticity if you do). With a few tweaks here and there — many of them kind to both your budget and the environment — hosting a pared-down, Squanto-approved Thanksgiving dinner can be easy. Here are some pointers:

Dim the lights waaay down

dinner by candlelight
Eating dinner by candlelight sets the mood — and think of how much you'll save on your electric bill!. Ikonoklast Fotografie/Shutterstock

Although candles often play an integral part of a festive Thanksgiving centerpiece, they’re frequently under-utilized. Sometimes they’re just used for “decorative” purposes and not lit at all; sometimes they are lit but with overhead lights burning brightly, too. Since the Pilgrims didn’t have the luxury of dining by CFL and candlelight, give those wax pillars a good workout this year while keeping the comfort and safety of your guests in mind (carving a turkey in the dark probably isn’t the wisest idea). Dining by candlelight on Thanksgiving is an intimate, reflective way to enjoy a communal meal and you may trim a couple bucks off your electricity bill, to boot. And since petroleum wasn’t big business back in the 1600s, opt for beeswax and soy-based candles to keep the low-impact harvest theme going strong.

Bypass the Butterball

If you’ve never opted for a free-range, heritage or organic turkey, hosting a throwback Thanksgiving is the perfect time to do so. While more expensive than mass-produced, industrial birds, today’s “natural” turkeys live not too differently from how they did back in 1621. Well, except that they’re not wild. Still, buying a bird that hasn’t been pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones and that’s been allowed access to the outdoors is much closer in epicurean spirit to the fowl presented at the original Thanksgiving table. Before you buy, ask your local butcher or grocery how the turkey was raised, considering the differences in turkey labeling can be confusing. LocalHarvest provides an insightful rundown of different turkey terminology.

Keepin' it fresh

vegetable basket
Fresh vegetables make any feast better. monticello/Shutterstock

The first Thanksgiving was a strictly local affair that was heavy on corn, meat and seafood (lobster, clams, venison and ducks are believed to be part of the meal in addition to wild fowl and veggies like onions, cabbage and squash). And without dairy products or ovens, there was certainly no pumpkin pie. Since hosting a historically accurate Thanksgiving dinner would be enough to send even the steeliest vegetarian guest into a state of shock, focus instead on serving fresh edibles that are produced close to or at home instead of canned goods. Grow a thing or two in your back garden? Serve up your own personal harvest even if it’s not traditional. Or, stop by your local farmers market and create a menu revolving around seasonal offerings like root vegetables and gourds. And to appease Thanksgiving purists, it’s best to probably throw in a couple of mashed potato-esque staples into the mix, too. And don’t forget the cranberries.

Observe Pilgrim minimalism

Celebrating the fact that they had survived the previous harsh Massachusetts winter — and thanking God for it — was why the Pilgrims first celebrated Thanksgiving. And while it was a joyous, festive occasion, the women of Plymouth Colony were most likely too busy cooking ducks over an open pit to think about decorating their homes and making tables look pretty. That said, try doing with minimal decorations this year or at the very least save yourself a few bucks and don’t buy any new ones. Sure, a bit of autumnal flair is fine, but it can also be distracting. Focus instead on the food at hand, friends and family and not on outdoing your Aunt Cindy’s centerpiece.


The first Thanksgiving was actually a days-long event where the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests obviously ate a lot of food. And in between all that eating there was plenty of game-playing, dancing and athletic activities. So before completely dismissing football as a strictly modern Thanksgiving phenomenon, just remember sports did play a part in the original Thanksgiving. So let the boys watch their games. Or better yet, indulge your guests in a rousing, post-dinner group activity before everyone nods off into a tryptophan coma.