Editor’s note: Fifteen years ago, our friend and former Main Street News colleague, Linda Ahnert of Old Lyme, wrote a column about the first Thanksgiving and how it developed into a national holiday. In what has now become an almost annual tradition, she has kindly updated it for us again, and we’re excited to release this new version to kick off Thanksgiving week.
This Thursday, November 24th, Americans from Sea to Shining Sea will sit down for a turkey dinner. In these politically polarized times, we can all agree – we all love Thanksgiving! For that reason, I’m grateful to have read Saying Thank You: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie again. This book by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation is a fascinating look at how a fall festival evolved into a “quintessential American holiday.”
Since this article was first published, The Plimoth Plantation has changed its name to the Plimoth Patuxet Museums. Its mission is to tell the story of the English colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the native people who lived there. Therefore, in 2020 the new name was adopted because it better reflects the multicultural history that is the essence of the museum’s mission.
Isn’t that what we first learned about Thanksgiving in elementary school? It was the story of pilgrims and Indians breaking bread together. And what’s better than people sharing a good meal?
Read on to find out what was Yes, really on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and learn how this fall festival developed into a national holiday.
Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving?
In 2005, a book entitled Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie was published. The co-authors are Kathleen Curtin, food historian at The Plimoth Plantation, Mass., and Sandra L. Oliver, food historian and editor of the Food History News newsletter.
The book is a fascinating look at how a fall festival evolved into a “quintessential American holiday.”
Most Americans, who were introduced to Pilgrim and Native American histories as children, assume that there is a direct connection between the traditional holiday menu and the first Thanksgiving. But we learn from the book that many of these foods — like mashed potatoes and apple pie — were simply impossible to make in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. Potatoes were not introduced to New England until much later and the early settlers did not yet have ovens to bake pies.
What we know of the menu at the first celebration, in 1621, comes from a letter from the colonist Edward Winslow to a friend in England: “Our crops have been reaped in, our governor sent four men to fowl-catcher, that after we might look forward to.” special way after reaping the fruits of our labor.”
Later, 90 Indians joined the party with “their great king, Massasoit, whom we entertained and feasted on for three days.” Then “the Indians went and killed five deer that they brought onto the plantation.”
So venison was a staple on the menu. It can also be assumed that mussels, clams and lobster (all in abundance) were served. According to other colonist journals, the “chickens” described by Winslow were probably ducks and geese. But wild turkeys were also plentiful in 1621, so it was very likely that they would be on the pilgrims’ table. Thank God.
In the New England colonies, it became customary to declare a day of thanksgiving sometime in the fall. In historical journals there are many descriptions of food preparation – such as butchering and cake-making – followed by the notation that “today was the general harvest festival”.
In the 19th century, Americans took the idea of ”Thanksgiving” to a whole new level. The religious connotations disappeared in favor of a holiday celebrating family and food. Roast turkey had become the centerpiece of these fall celebrations.
Turkeys were naturally native to North America. (Benjamin Franklin even proposed the turkey as the official US bird in a letter!)
And turkey was considered a fashionable food in the motherland. Just think of the importance of the turkey in Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Waking up in high spirits on Christmas morning, Scrooge calls a boy on the street to deliver the award-winning turkey to the Cratchit family at the poultry shop. (Earlier in the story, the poor Cratchits ate goose.)
Thanks to a New England woman, Thanksgiving became an American holiday. Sarah Hale is from New Hampshire and was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine. For years she campaigned for national observance of Thanksgiving. She wrote editorials and sent letters to the President, all state governors and members of Congress.
Finally, in 1863, she convinced Abraham Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving could help unite the civil war-torn country. The fourth Thursday in November was now officially on the American calendar.
Harriet Beecher Stowe of Connecticut wrote this description of Thanksgiving in New England in one of her novels: “But who shall . . .describe the turkey, chickens and chicken pies with all the endless variety of vegetables that American soil and climate have brought to the table . . . After the meat came the plum puddings and then the endless line of pies. . .”
The Autumn Festival has become a national holiday, but each region of the country has put its own twist on the menu. Not to mention that immigrants have also added diversity. The result is a true “melting pot” of America. The second half of Giving Thanks contains recipes that reflect what Americans eat for Thanksgiving in the 21st century.
In the South, for example, turkey might be stuffed with cornbread and there would be pecan and sweet potato pies on the table. In New Mexico, chilies and southwestern flavors may be added to the filling.
There is the recipe of the “old traditional bread filling”. There’s also one for a Chinese-American rice dressing and one for a black bean and rice stuffed Cuban turkey. Desserts range from an (authentic) Indian pudding to an (exotic) coconut rice pudding. Old-fashioned pumpkin pie is included, as well as new-fangled pumpkin cheesecake.
But no matter what foods grace our Thanksgiving tables, it seems we all gorge ourselves silly.
Perhaps the overeating began at that very first harvest celebration in 1621. In Edward Winslow’s letter describing the feast with the Indians, he remarked that the food was not always so plentiful. But he wrote to his friend in England: “…but, by God’s goodness, we are so far from it that we often wish you sharers in our abundance.”