Celebrate Thanksgiving Like a Pilgrim and Eat Wild

Dan Born
Dan Born

Party like its 1621 and prepare wild game this Holiday Season

For the last couple months, hunters across the Nation have been working hard to put animals on the ground and meat on the table. With a bit of luck, we end up with a bounty of wild game and almost limitless options for its preparation. At the same time, Thanksgiving arrives just as the fall hunting season starts to draw to a close. You would think then that the holiday would be closely associated with consumption of wild game meat, but for most people it’s not. I would even bet that the majority of hunters don’t prepare wild game for Thanksgiving. I suggest we change that.

The Thanksgiving meal that most of us sit down to today is about as far from wild as you can get. It’s a prepackaged, preservative loaded combination of genetically enhanced turkey, boxed stuffing, dehydrated potatoes and cranberry sauce in the shape of its tin can containment unit.

But Thanksgiving didn’t start that way. The first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate the wild and the cultivated. Through no small amount of toil, hardship and suffering as well as the generous help of the local Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims had survived their first year in the New World. So they called over their neighbors and held a party centered around the food they had been successful in hunting, gathering and growing that year. Exactly what was on the menu for the fall feast of 1621 is a bit of a mystery, but it surly wasn’t your sister-in-law’s green bean casserole. From the letters of Pilgrim, Edward Winslow we know that:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

In researching the food available for the feast, I read one author who reported that compared to today, the “pickings would be slim.” This strikes me as being written by someone who clearly has no idea of the variety in wild game and plants, nor the mastery in its preparation by the Wampanoag. As far as fowl, turkey isn’t even mentioned here, though it is in other first person accounts. Passenger pigeon, duck, swan and goose were likely even more prevalent. Venison seems to have been the centerpiece and while whitetail deer comes to mind, I like to think they also included an eastern elk which were still found in the area at the time. Winslow specifically mentions deer, but the term “deer” was formally used to describe a broad range of ungulates, and the eastern elk looks much more like the highland stags of the old world than our American born whitetail. Elk makes sense too, as an eastern could way up to 1000 pounds, and would feed a heck of a lot more people over the course of the 3-day party than five whitetails would.

On the non-meat side, onions and other root vegetables probably had a big presence, though the potato hadn’t quite made it to the New World yet; carrots had arrived barely a decade earlier during the formation of Jamestown. A large variety of wild gathered fruits and nuts also could have been served, such as currents, cranberries and beechnuts. Besides helping secure the venison, the Wampanoags would have brought crops of their own, including pumpkins, squash and corn. The corn would have been used to make corn bread, as wheat wasn’t available, or a type of corn pudding. Being located on the Atlantic coast there was definitely a seafood component as well; oysters, mussels, scallops, lobsters and fresh fish would have likely found its way onto the table.

Doesn’t that sound like an awesome dinner to be at and doesn’t it make our Thanksgiving spread seem bland by comparison? To be fair though, even with all wild variety that could be offered, I’d still be wishing for a few modern staples served at my family’s Thanksgiving; cold beer and pumpkin pie. Over 100 people attended the first Thanksgiving, and the remaining beer supply from the voyage on the Mayflower was limited to perhaps only 5 gallons, so water was probably the beverage served. The sugar stores were likely gone as well. That means no pies, cakes or other sweet deserts. What about Cool Whip to smother the pumpkin pie in? That wouldn’t be invented until 1966, a full 345 years after the Pilgrims sat down with the Wampanoag. No Cool Whip means no Dan at your Thanksgiving dinner, so while I would never advocate to go 100% old school for your holiday feast, I think we should all consider bringing some of that wild flavor back to the table. No reason the butterball turkey can’t be put aside in favor of antelope steaks, panfish filets or elk backstrap during your family’s celebration of thanks.

Easy Whitetail Roast with Root Vegetables

Looking for a venison recipe for your Thanksgiving Dinner? Try this roast. Yes, the recipe contains the same potatoes noted as unavailable during the first Thanksgiving, but like I said, with my taste for Cool Whip, I’ll never be a purist.



•1 large whitetail roast, preferably from a hind quarter for maximum tenderness and minimum cartilage.

•1 large bag of baby carrots

•1 sweet onions roughly chopped

•5-10 red potatoes, quartered.

•10-20 white button mushrooms, halved.

•1 bulb garlic

•1 cup flour

•Sea salt

•Freshly ground black pepper

•Garlic powder

•Bacon grease or olive oil for browning

•1 14 oz can beef broth

•1 package onion soup mix •Red wine


If frozen, allow the roast to come to room temperature. Preheat your oven to 475 degrees (hot, I know, but stay with me here). Cut 3-6 slits into the roast and pack full of crushed garlic. Season all sides of the roast with pepper, salt and garlic powder. A bit of thyme wouldn’t hurt it, either. Dust the sides of the roast in flour.

Place the roast in a large skillet that has been heated to medium/high heat with bacon grease and brown for 4 minutes per side. Once browned, place the roast in the center of the roasting pan.

Pack the veggies around the perimeter of the roast. Season the vegetables with additional salt and pepper if desired. Add enough beef broth and red wine to just cover the base of the pan. Then add a bit more. Sprinkle the onion soup mix onto the roast.

Reduce heat to 400 degrees and place covered roasting pan into oven. Depending on the size of the roast, cook for 50 minutes for medium rare, 1 hour for medium and 1:15 for well done. This will vary on the size of your roast, so use your best judgement and recommended degrees of doneness for best results.

Once out of the oven, resist the urge to dig in and let the meat and veggies rest for 15 minutes. Do not skip this step!

That’s it! Enjoy!