Now that the pies are baked, the squabble about the side dishes has been resolved (this year it was over sweet potato fries), and the turkey is roasting in the oven, it’s time for the annual holiday trivia fest (and Christmas present name drawing in my family). What was the first Thanksgiving celebration like, what did they eat, and who was really around the table? Like every other American child, I grew up with the ideal of dourly-dressed Puritans gratefully sharing their harvest meal with the uncivilized Native Americans after a winter in which the former almost starved to death. Long planks were filled with turkeys, pies, corn, potatoes,and every other imaginable autumn food.
At a lecture at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca on I attended last Wednesday, Dr. Libby O’Connell, Chief Historian at The History Channel, gave an engaging talk on the real origins of this festival and how the picture of it that we have in our minds today matches up with what that feast would have looked like almost four centuries ago. One of the first things that she set about doing was to clarify the name“thanksgiving.” Festivals with that name as well as feasts celebrating the bounty of the harvest have been around for centuries prior to Plymouth. These traditions are evident from the earliest societies.
As Dr. O’Connell pointed out, as soon as farming is seen in civilization, we see homage paid to the gods of growing food. The harvest festivals involved large meals and some type of singing and/or dancing. Thanksgiving ceremonies, however, were of a more somber nature and involved fasting, prayer,and religious ceremony. A good yield in any year would have been a cause to be celebrated. It would also have been appropriate to thank the local god/diety/saint that the people deemed responsible for providing them with the abundance to sustain them for the upcoming colder weather.
This is the background for the traditions that the earliest European settlers brought with them to the New World. In fact, some of the surviving written accounts reflect accounts of them giving thanks in ceremonies that pre-date the one that we honor today,including the one at Berkeley Plantation in Colonial Virginia. As we know from our history studies, life was not easy for those who came to these shores from Europe. In their first year here,many of the settlers died from disease and food-related illnesses, and it was throught he generosity of the native peoples who taught them how to grown food in this new climate that they were able to survive and eventually to thrive. Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth colonists described this first harvest feast that they had. This is what is referred to as “The First Thanksgiving” (with apologies to my VA peeps who claim that the first one was held there).
What isinteresting to me was the food items. Animals were slaughtered in the fall, so that they wouldn’t have to be fed during the harsh winter months. Crops would have been brought in to be stored. When the Virginia contingent talks about this holiday, themenu might include things like ham and oysters. Articles about the feast also clarify that pumpkin pie (or anypie) would not have been possible, as the colonists didn’t have the white flouror sugar with which to make it. Mashed potatoes would not have been at the table, as they had not yettraveled back from Europe via South America. Apples were also not native to this area, so I couldn’t have had my favorite pie. There might have been turkey, but therewould also have been other types of fowl.
Lobster might also have been on the menu, as it was plentiful in thewaters in that area at that time. There might even have been fresh venison, something not found on manymodern holiday tables. What wouldhave been on the table, too, was corn or maize. This wasn’t like the warm buttery ears that we eat today, but rather a hard grain andmeant to be ground into meal before using. Corn pudding is probably a close approximation of a dishthat might have been on the Puritans’ table. They also might have eaten squashes, spinach, beans, andnut, and some type of stuffing might have been part of the meal, too.
From this first meal grew a mythology and after several more iterations developed the currentvision of Thanksgiving Day. It wasduring the Victorian era that the more modern tradition started to take place,much like our modern Christmas holiday celebrations did. Atmy parents’ house, the meal seemed to me to be very picture-perfecttraditional: roasted turkey with stuffing (if I was lucky, without oysters),creamy mashed potatoes, crisp green beans with almonds, giggly cranberry sauce(and cranberry relish if I had my way), and sweet pie for dessert, usuallyapple. I would love it if lobster could make an appearance during the day. The concept of a slow-roasted pumpkin stuffed with bread and savory ingredients is kind of appealing and might be something I attempt next year.
Really, however, it doesn’t matter exactly what is on the table at Thanksgiving. I’ve celebrated it with family and friends in several different cities and in a few countries. Some of the thrill comes from bringing everyone together around the table, even the last-minute extra guests, much as the Native Americans were that first celebration. Everyone chips in bringing his or her traditions and from that new ones might be born. I still haven’t managed to convince my father, though, that pizza or dumplings were part of that early feast. Maybe next year…