Seperating fact from fiction is always a challenge for the historian. The challenges increase exponentially with the passing of centuries, and when an event has been transformed into a revered tradition. Such is the case for Thanksgiving.

The way that we celebrate the holiday in the third decade of the 21st century is far removed from the simple harvest fest celebrated by the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims in late 1621. Even the reason for the pilgrims to settle in Massachusetts rather than their original destination in Virginia is clouded by myth that has been repeated so often it is often sold as fact.

As the legend goes, beer was the reason the Pilgrims set foot in Massachusetts. For more than a century the story has been told that the Pilgrims cut their journey short because their supply of beer was nearly exhausted.

But most historians disagree. While beer was an important commodity in an era when drinking water could prove fatal, it was food supplies that most likely led to an early landing.

The now famous Thanksgiving dinner took place in October or November. The Pilgrims had planted crops, including barley, and had enjoyed a modest harvest. But was it enough to provide food and beer? Not likely. If there was alcohol served it was most likely cider, but that is even doubtful.

As an historic footnote the first record of brewing in the Massachusetts colony is dated 1637. That is when the first license for a brewery was issued.

So, where did the tradition, and the legend, of beer at the first Thanskgiving dinner begin? In 1908, Anheuser-Busch launched an ambitious advertising campaign that centered on “Beer, the drink of Our Pilgrim Fathers.” In the 1930s the company initiated another campaign with headings that read, “It Was Beer Not Turkey That Lured the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock.”

Beer is just one of the myths associated with Thanksgiving. What agout the tradition of roast turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie?

There are no records of that first Thanksgiving dinner, but Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission before the feast. “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 labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week.”

In “On Plymouth Plantation,” Bradford’s famous account of the colonies, he remarked of the fall harvest that, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” Wild turkey was indeed plentiful in the region but other birds such as ducks, geese and swans were also eaten.

As it was the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, with the help of Native American neighbors, the table was most likely set with venison as well. And other regional staples such as eel, mollusks, fish, onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and carrots were also most likely included on the menu. Corn would have been boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge sweetened with something similar to molasses or perhaps maple syrup. Grapes, blueberries, gooseberries, raspberries and cranberries were also Native American staples that were probably shared with the Pilgrims.

Historical accuracy aside, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate tradition, and to make memories with friends as well as family. This year celebrate tradition, and make some new ones with fine craft beer from Mudshark Brewery in Lake Havasu City, Arizona to enhance the dinner, or to savor during the big game.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America