Many myths surround the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States. The gathering most commonly cited as the inaugural festival happened in October 1621. For three days, 53 Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony dined with 90 Wampanoags to revel in gratitude for a bountiful harvest.
For many people, today’s traditional Thanksgiving meal centers around items such as turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. But many of the foodstuffs we associate with the holiday were certainly not consumed at the first gathering. The people of the era did not possess luxuries such as sugar and flour, so pies and cranberry sauce were definitely not on the menu. Many historians even question the centrality of turkeys, believing ducks, geese, and fish were more likely to be consumed.
The Wampanoags taught the Pilgrims how to farm in the region, a move that likely saved their lives. The Native Americans cultivated the “Three Sisters,” corn, squash, and beans. These crops likely featured heavily in the first harvest of 1621 and, therefore, the feast the group prepared after they reaped.
The corn the Pilgrims encountered is not the same corn we butter or pop today. The corn the Wampanoags knew was actually just one small stop on a continental journey for a plant that humans molded for thousands of years.
What we in North America call corn is technically known as maize.
Maize is a cereal grain, which means it is a species of grass. Its name reflects its origin: the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. Approximately 9,000 years ago, humans domesticated maize, a cultigen of wild grasses called teosintes.
From there, the usage of maize spread throughout Central, South, and North America. By 1000 BCE, the crop was so important that the Olmec placed corn as the figurehead of their symbolism, popping up in calendars and myths. By 900 CE, maize had arrived in Northeastern North America, where it became the star crop.
When Europeans arrived in 1492, they consumed maize and carried it to Europe. From there, the grain traveled the world, becoming a staple in many locations.
The sobriquet maize arrives via Spanish from the Taíno name for the plant: mahiz. Scientists utilize the world “maize” to refer to Zea mays, but, in the West, we often use the word “corn.” This difference arises because Pilgrims erroneously called the food they encountered “Indian corn.” For many centuries, in many parts of the world, “corn” can refer to a variety of grains. In North America, “Indian corn” became truncated at some point, leaving us with a generic “corn” to describe maize.
“Indian corn” is actually flint corn or calico corn. Today, this variety exists mainly as a decorative item, but Indigenous Americans cultivated this hearty sort for ingestion because it thrived in soils that do not foster many other crops.
Six major types of maize exist: dent corn, flint corn, pod corn, popcorn, flour corn, and sweet corn. Most of the ubiquitous yellow corn we enjoy in the United States today is a variety of dent corn, named for the small indentation on each kernel. Flint corn possesses a hard outer layer, leading to the rocky name.
If you love eating corn on the cob, you would have been wildly disappointed at the First Thanksgiving. Due to the hard nature of flint corn, the Pilgrims were not going row by row with their teeth. Instead, they ground it up to make cornmeal for bread and porridge. Perhaps they also sampled hominy, made from dried maize, which Natives had eaten for millennia.
Today, maize production is big business. The United States and China produce more than 50% of the world’s supply. In the US, more than 15 billion bushels of corn grow each year. Iowa leads the way, making more than 2.5 billion bushels. Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Indiana round out the corny top five.
In modern Thanksgiving feasts, corn is less likely to be served as porridge and more likely to be eaten on the cob, slathered with butter, or topped with salt. Sometimes people ingest creamed corn. These people are crazy, but they do exist. Since maize is a grain and cornbread exists, we can apply the metaphor of “breaking bread” to corn. If you happen to break cornbread this year during your Thanksgiving celebration, remember that you are eating an ancient grain, though you are likely not recreating the dinners of the Pilgrims.
Further Reading and Exploration
What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving? – Smithsonian Magazine
Native Intelligence – Smithsonian Magazine
The Pilgrims Had No Idea How to Farm Here. Luckily, They Had the Native Americans – Modern Farmer
Rethinking the Corny History of Maize – Smithsonian Magazine
US Corn Production by State: The Top 11 – Crop Prophet