Paula Peters, Wampanoag tribal member, finds American Thanksgiving is inadequate because there is only one day to give thanks. “We have many days throughout the year for celebrating and feasting with thanks for all of our blessings. One day a year doesn't satisfy our gratitude,” she said.
Foods served at Wampanoag feasts are part of a long-standing tradition, Peters said. However, “Most of the game foods, fish and shellfish preparations have been modified through the years by availability and spices.” Referencing Sherry Pocknett, a well-known Wampanoag chef, Peters said, “She makes an awesome effort to be authentic in the tradition of the food that she prepares.”
Pocknett is the owner of Sly Fox Den Catering and was recently appointed executive chef at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Connecticut.
Courtesy Sherry Pocknett
Chef Sherry Pocknett is now the executive chef at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.
One recent evening in her home, Pocknett whipped up a delicious dinner for two, made of foods that may have been present at the 1621 harvest feast: the first American Thanksgiving.
While freshly caught haddock roasted in the oven, a light aroma of garlic filled the kitchen. Pocknett lifted the lid from a small pot on the stove, exposing more than a dozen steamer clams, some of the biggest this reporter has ever seen. They were tender and tasty and still full of the salty fresh taste of the sea. Just the day before, Pocknett harvested them from the waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag’s homelands.
The steamers were served with a cup of butter on one side and a steaming cup of clam broth on the other. “This is medicine,” Pocknett said. “When we get sick in the winter, this is what we drink.” She took a long sip and asked, “What else could I ask from the Creator? We are given all this to survive.”
Pocknett’s cooking skills are well known in the northeast, notably through the foods served at the Sly Fox Den food stand seen at many powwows. Now that Pocknett has focused her efforts in other areas, the stand is managed by her daughter, Jade Galvin, 26.
Pocknett learned her cooking skills from family cooks. These days, she passes on her knowledge to youth, and others. She hosts a Thanksgiving cooking class, but instead of turkey, Pocknett serves striped bass. “We use clam or oyster stuffing, onions, celery garlic, seasoning, salt and pepper.”
For the Wampanoags, giving thanks at harvest time went on long before the colonists arrived. “Our ways have been passed down for thousands of years through oral traditions and we were among the first tribes to use written language. Our ceremonies acknowledge our creator. It is not a recent phenomenon by any means,” Paula Peters said. David Weeden, deputy of the Wampanoag Historic Preservation Office, said foods were shared at gatherings to provide for those who may not have had the ability to provide for themselves.
For the first American Thanksgiving, Tribal Councilman Jonathan Perry, Aquinnah Wampanoag, said waterfowl was served; perhaps duck, goose, or passenger pigeon. Kathleen Wall, a Plimoth Plantation foodways culinarian told Smithsonian Magazine there might have been swan, and of course, turkey.
Corn, squash and beans would have been served, too, Perry said, and Pocknett’s video offers instructions on how to make corn cakes, today cooked in the oven. In earlier times, corn cakes were cooked in the ashes of a fire, the ashes adding nutrients to the cakes.
Pumpkins are mentioned in many sources of early recorded cooking. Called pompion by the Natives, ICTMN writer Dale Carson, author of New England Native Cooking, wrote they were sliced into rings and hung to dry. Later in the 1600s, pumpkin seeds were scooped from the shell, which was then filled with milk, sugar and spices. The entire pumpkin was placed in the fire, resulting in a delicious pudding.
At the first American Thanksgiving, there would have been no pies, cranberry sauce, or potatoes, either white or sweet. Before sugar and flour were available, many of today’s dishes would not have been available.
On November 21, a Wampanoag harvest celebration served many kinds of foods eaten in the 1600s including a raw bar of oysters and clams; stuffed fish, smoked fish, raccoon, venison, butternut squash, baked beans, and fish cakes.
Though the staples haven’t changed much, preparations certainly have. Pocknett still makes sassafras tea, but she also makes a sassafras martini. She and her family still go clamming, even in the depths of winter, for steamers, quahogs, and clams. Many people fish and hunt, and gather wild greens. Pocknett still serves lobster, most recently stuffed with lobster macaroni and cheese. Fresh fish is still roasted, but today with a delicious seasoning of spices, garlic, and cracker crumbs, or other modern methods.
Courtesy Sherry Pocknett
Mashantucket Pequot Museum chef Sherry Pocknett, Mashpee Wampanoag, gives martinis a new twist with sassafras and cranberries.
“Growing up, I always loved to fish. We fish as soon as we can walk, we learn how to catch herring with our hands,” Pocknett said.
Even Pocknett’s love of cooking began at an early age. “I had an Easy Bake Oven and whatever my mother was cooking, I would cook. When there was venison or a heaping pan of eels, I would just cut some up and cook it up in my little oven and feed my brothers.”
Pocknett is teaching her grandchildren how to cut fish, and they are already harvesting sassafras. “Right down to the youngest one, who just turned 1,” she said. “I want to teach people how I grew up. It’s simple and really rewarding.”
A special thanks to food blogger and Mohegan librarian Rachel Sayet, Mohegan, for her help and assistance in providing materials, research, and her paper, “A Celebration of Land and Sea: Modern Indigenous Cuisine in New England.”