Okay, that title is a cheat, because of course there isn't any such thing as a medieval Thanksgiving. The whole point of the American Thanksgiving holiday was to commemorate those first Pilgrims who came to America, those Puritans who left Anglican England (actually, many left England, moved to the Netherlands--didn't like that their children were developing Dutch accents--and left for a new world) to escape religious persecution...so they could persecute religiously in this country. Life was harsh in their new environment and only about half the Pilgrims survived the following March, and if the Native Americans had not felt sorry for these clueless white people, there would be no celebration...or no America as we know it...at all. But the next year the harvest was in and they celebrated (this feast is essentially a harvest festival and the first one occurred in mid-October, not November).
So let's look at the typical Thanksgiving feast as we now know it with a medieval twist. After all, I do write a medieval mystery series. First up, in medieval England, there were no turkeys. Turkeys are New World birds. They didn't get imported to England from Mexico until about the mid to late sixteenth century. And they were expensive. Only wealthy tables could afford to have turkey for Christmas (because that was the big feast. Really, only farmers had a harvest festival). The average Joe cooked a goose. Oh the irony. Have you priced a goose lately? Care to spend $70 bucks and up on your goose? Meanwhile, now the holiday bird--turkey--is one of the cheapest things on the menu.
The Pilgrims were offered popcorn for their festive meal. But corn (as we call it in the U.S.) or maize (as everyone else calls it) is also a New World food (and incidentally, that's when our teeth started going downhill, all that corn consumption. There are a lot of natural sugars in corn and it isn't good for our teeth). As far as New World food, we can also put the yam, sweet potato, and potato on the list. No candied yams, no mashed potatoes, then. Cranberries are available in the Northern Hemisphere and could have been available to our medievalists but I can't recall many recipes including them. They're so bitter that you need a sweetener, and sweeteners--honey and sugar--were expensive.
Just what the heck could one have, then?
The Pilgrims had all sorts of shell fish for their meals. (Yes, the Natives complained of having to have lobster...again!) Oysters and clams would certainly grace a medieval table, as would some kind of stuffing or dressing (remember “stuffing” is cooked INSIDE the animal, and “dressing” gets cooked separately and goes along on the side). A good medieval stuffing is mostly meat (as are most of their dishes). So sausage or other ground meats mixed with cloves and mace and perhaps cinnamon. And then dried fruits would be added along with wine. You might add old bread and you might not. Stuff that into a bird and roast and you'll come out with something amazingly tasty.
I'm afraid pumpkin pie would also be off the menu. That New World thing again. (Remember, in Scotland, the first Jack-O-Lanturns were actually carved-out turnips.) What might you have for dessert?
Elderflower cheesecake, bone marrow custards, fruit stewed in wine, dried fruit baked in a tart; these are the kinds of things one might have to finish off the meal in a medieval kitchen.
I'm not having a medieval Thanksgiving and we aren’t camping as we have done in years past. But we are roasting our turkey on a spit which makes it very juicy and not a bit smoky. Medieval life was a lot like perpetual camping, what with having to fetch water, fetch fuel for your fire, smelling smoky all the time and a bit cold, too, so it wouldn’t have been out of character camping for your feast.