Thanksgiving: “More Heath Hen, Please!”

Baked fish at Thanksgiving could be a traditional addition to your family's feast. Photo by author

There’s a difference between Thanksgiving and other holidays. Most of these special days are about a specific event – Christ’s birth, America’s Independence, the Groundhog’s weather prediction -while Thanksgiving is about the feast.

Sure, for some families Easter is always a ham and for others St. Patrick’s day is always the reason to stink up the kitchen with corned beef and cabbage. But those special meals are only a minor part of the greater celebration.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims with a special feast, their way of showing their gratitude for the blessings the New World provided their group. The current tradition of the Thanksgiving feast is the continuing way for American’s to show gratitude for our blessings.

Many of these modern feasts include dishes actually or thought to have been eaten at the original Thanksgiving dinner. A portion of the feast came from the crops the Pilgrims were successful in raising – corn, squash and pumpkins along with root crops such as onions, turnips. Some of it was food they gathered from the wild such as nuts and berries. Most of the protein, the meat portion of the feast, was harvested from the surrounding wilderness. Other than ham, obviously from a pilgrim-pig, all the meat portion of the first celebration listed in historical documents was from nature’s bounty – game and fish.

If you are from a hunting family, chances are game and or fish is a part of your traditional Thanksgiving feast, though not necessarily the same kind of game the Pilgrims had available. It’s doubtful the Pilgrims had any quail, certainly no pheasant, even wild turkey wasn’t specifically mentioned. What was reported in historical accounts were deer, wildfowl – ducks, geese, swans for sure and possibly wild turkeys and heath hens (a now extinct game bird related to the prairie chicken.) There was fish – perhaps cod, eels, striped bass – and shellfish in the form of clams and oysters.

Often overlooked is the fact the “First Feast” lasted three days. (The celebration wasn’t officially dubbed Thanksgiving until 1789 by George Washington and made a federal holiday by Abe Lincoln in 1863). So even if you don’t want to load up table and sideboard with all of the traditional dishes shared by the Pilgrims and their visitors from the Wampanoag tribe for one big meal, planning three days of menus based on America’s official harvest festival can be fun.

Even families without hunters or fishers out foraging for wild meat and fish can do this with some selective shopping. Some of the Pilgrim’s “traditional” entrees have been domesticated and are widely available in supermarkets or specialty shops. Every supermarket sells turkey, ducks and game hens. Most supermarkets sell fresh or frozen seafood.

There are plenty of online places to purchase more exotic meats such as venison, rabbit and other domesticated forms of wild species commonly found on the table of outdoor families. After all, Butterball turkeys are ancestors of wild turkeys, a Maple Farms duck at the supermarket is quite similar to the wild a mallard that may be on my Thanksgiving days menu.

Most American’s have plenty to be thankful for this season. Near the top of the list is the plentiful and variety of food available. Among the things for which I give thanks is the variety and abundance of fish and wildlife resources, particularly, the sustainable sport fish and game animals I can choose to harvest for my family’s Thanksgiving feasting.

Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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