Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How about serving up a real traditional Thanksgiving meal this year--1621 style?

Start by sending four men on a “fowling” mission to gather birds to eat. Ask the guests to bring at least five deer. Then gather 50 family members and 90 friends to celebrate for three days, eating dried maize, waterfowl, cod, and bass. Add clams, mussels, lobster, eel, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squashes, and beans. For dessert maybe some dried gooseberries and . . . wait a minute! Where did all those people come from? And. . .three whole days? Cod? Maize? EELS? No way! What about stuffing? Mashed potatoes? Green bean casserole? Pumpkin pie? Whipped cream? Naps after eating?

Yep. A Plymouth Pilgrim wouldn’t recognize the food we eat now for Thanksgiving. Even the turkeys wouldn’t look the same—farm raised turkeys are bigger than the wild ones. We don’t have an official record of everything the Pilgrims chowed down on during that first celebration in 1621, but the foods mentioned above are based on written texts about what they hunted and grew. They had no ovens, and probably no sugar, so pies were out. They had no cows or goats—those arrived on the ship Anne in 1623, so no cheese or milk. No pigs, either.  

Nor would the Pilgrims have called the celebration Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving wasn’t even an official yearly holiday until 1863, when, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. That’s when the foods we eat now started becoming tradition.

For the Pilgrims, the fall of 1621 was a real celebration after the previous brutal winter. They had remained on board the Mayflower and suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of the original passengers and crew lived to see their first spring. The Pilgrims hit land in late March. Imagine their surprise when they were greeted by an Abenaki Indian who spoke to them in English. And several days later, he returned with Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. (Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. He escaped to London and returned to his homeland.) Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to survive in the new world. How to cultivate corn, gather sap, catch fish, and how to identify poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years.

The Pilgrims had good reason to be thankful that fall.

Here are two primary sources describing that first celebration:

The first is from Edward Winslow's account, a letter dated December 12, 1621 that was published in 1622.

Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown.  They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.  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 fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

The second was written about twenty years after the fact by William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation. 

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.  For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.  All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).  And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.  Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.


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