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 through the 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 is interesting 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, the menu might include things like ham and oysters. Articles about the feast also clarify that pumpkin pie (or any pie) would not have been possible, as the colonists didn’t have the white flour or sugar with which to make it. Mashed potatoes would not have been at the table, as they had not yet traveled 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 there would also have been other types of fowl.
Lobster might also have been on the menu, as it was plentiful in the waters in that area at that time. There might even have been fresh venison, something not found on many modern holiday tables. What would have 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 and meant to be ground into meal before using. Corn pudding is probably a close approximation of a dish that might have been on the Puritans’ table. They also might have eaten squashes, spinach, beans, and nut, 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 current vision of Thanksgiving Day. It was during the Victorian era that the more modern tradition started to take place, much like our modern Christmas holiday celebrations did. At my parents’ house, the meal seemed to me to be very picture-perfect traditional: 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, usually apple. 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...