Turkey was featured, of course, along with duck, goose, swan, and venison. The Pilgrims served corn, beans, squash, and peas from the garden along with wild raspberries, grapes, and plums gathered in the forest.
But the premiere dish at the First Thanksgiving was seafood, fish stew, cooked in cast iron cauldrons over open fires on the beach. Fish stew, by all rights, should be the main course of our modern Thanksgiving.
Turkey, rather than fish stew, became tradition due to the influence of Sarah Josepha Hale. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Sarah Hale convinced Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday as a way of unifying the war-torn nation.
Hale was editor of Godey’s Lady Book, a journal of stories, poetry, and, most importantly, recipes. It was the most popular magazine in America. To celebrate the newly declared Thanksgiving, Hale published a series of holiday recipes for her readers across the country.
Hale feared that a New England fish stew recipe, authentic as it was, would be rejected by Southerners. Turkey, however, was popular both North and South. Sarah Hale’s influence made turkey the official main course for Thanksgiving, and her roasted turkey recipe has proved a lasting legacy.
This Thanksgiving, we will celebrate the fish stew tradition of our Pilgrim Fathers. Our seafood in the Coastal Bend is some of the best in the world, and fish stew for the holidays is the perfect way to showcase the harvest of the sea.
For our fish stew recipe, we duplicated the Pilgrim dish using local and updated ingredients. Instead of the sea bass, bluefish, and lobsters of Cape Cod, we used black drum and shrimp from the Gulf. The mussels and clams Pilgrims harvested by hand are not available locally, so we used oysters and blue crab.
Only use live crab for your stew. Remove the apron and innards and toss the entire crab into the pot for a rustic feel. November is a great month for oysters; use as many as your taste and budget allow. The saffron gives this dish a robust depth of flavor.
You can get all of your seafood ingredients from Charlie at Morgan Street Seafood. Charlie has the freshest fish in town and he will give you the essential makings for your fish stock at no charge. We even took some tips from Charlie’s mom for this recipe.
The Pilgrims did not have pumpkin pie as we know it. In Colonial days, chefs made pie by hollowing out a whole pumpkin, filling it with apples, raisins, and spices, and roasting the stuffed pumpkin next to a fire. The entire pumpkin was eaten, rind and all.
For our colonial pumpkin pie recipe, we used lovely Galeux D’Eysines heirloom pumpkins from our garden, but these are rare and hard to find. For your pie, use any medium-sized pumpkin, or a large acorn or buttercup squash from the farmers’ market.
We are beginning a new tradition at our holiday table with fish stew and colonial pumpkin pie. We will gather our harvest from the fields and waters of THE BEND and celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of Plymouth Rock.
First Thanksgiving Fish Stew
Makes 8 entrée servings or 12 appetizer servings
Prep time: 25 min
Cook time: 2 hours
For Fish Stock:
3 lbs fish heads and bones, shrimp heads and peels
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk fennel, chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed with skin
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp dry or ½ cup fresh tarragon
2 tbsp butter
2 leeks, diced
1 stalk fennel, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups fish stock
Juice of two lemons
2 pinches saffron
½ tsp red pepper
2 whole live blue crabs, with apron and innards removed
2 lbs drum filets, coarsely chopped (optional: may substitute or add flounder or game fish)
2 lbs shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pint oysters, shucked (or more, to taste)
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup fresh tarragon, chopped
For stock: Place all fish stock ingredients in a 6-quart pot and cover with 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer stock for at least one hour, then remove from heat. Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Stock will keep in the refrigerator for three days, or in the freezer for three months.
For stew: Melt the butter in a 6-quart pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and fennel and sauté for 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté an additional minute, stirring frequently. Deglaze the pot with the white wine, taking care to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom. Simmer until wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.
Add stock, lemon juice, saffron and red pepper to pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add fresh seafood to stock and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add cream and tarragon, and serve.
Colonial Pumpkin Pie
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
10-12 lb pumpkin with top, seeds and pulp removed
2 apples, diced (recommend pink lady, granny smith, or Fuji varieties)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup raisins
1 cup pecans, chopped
8 tbsp butter, cubed
For Vanilla Bean Sauce:
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup granulated sugar
4 tbsp butter
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
Optional: 2 tbsp rum or brandy
Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine spices and brown sugar in a small bowl. Place pumpkin on a rimmed, aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet. Place half of the apples in the bottom of the pumpkin and top with 1/2 cup raisins, 1/2 cup pecans, and half of the butter. Top fruit and nut mixture with half of the sugar-spice mixture.
Using the remaining ingredients, repeat the process forming a second layer inside the pumpkin. Cover pumpkin with aluminum foil and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake for three hours, or until pumpkin flesh is fork tender and filling is bubbling. Serve with Vanilla Bean Sauce.
Vanilla Bean Sauce:
In a medium saucepan, combine cream, sugar, salt, (optional liquor), and butter over medium-low heat. Using a paring knife, cut down the length of the vanilla bean and scrape its contents into the cream mixture. Whisk sauce until bubbling and a creamy consistency is reached. Serve warm by spooning sauce over each serving of pumpkin pie.