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When Americans sit down with their families for Thanksgiving
dinner, most of us will probably gorge ourselves on the
same traditional Thanksgiving menu, with turkey, cranberry
sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie taking up the most real
estate on our plates. How did these dishes become the
national “what you eat on Thanksgiving” options, though?
Turkey may not have been on the menu at the
1621 celebration by the Pilgrims of Plymouth that is
considered the First Thanksgiving (though historians
and fans of Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation might
quibble with the “First” part). There were definitely
wild turkeys in the Plymouth area, as colonist William
Bradford noted in his journal. However, the best existing
account of the Pilgrims’ harvest feast comes from
colonist Edward Winslow, author of Mourt’s Relation:
A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Winslow’s firsthand
account of the First Thanksgiving included no
explicit mention of turkey. He does, however, mention
the Pilgrims gathering “wild fowl” for the meal,
although that could just as likely have meant ducks
or geese.
It helps to know a bit about the history of Thanksgiving.
While the idea of giving thanks and celebrating the harvest
was popular in certain parts of the country, it was by
no means an annual national holiday. Presidents would
occasionally declare a Thanksgiving Day celebration,
but the holiday hadn’t completely caught on nationwide.
Many of these early celebrations included turkey;
Alexander Hamilton once remarked that, “No citizen of
the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”
When Bradford’s journals were reprinted in 1856 after
being lost for a century, they found a receptive audience
with advocates who wanted Thanksgiving turned
into a national holiday. Since Bradford wrote of how the
colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the autumn
of 1621 and since turkey is a uniquely American (and
scrumptious) bird, it gained traction as the Thanksgiving
meal of choice for Americans after Lincoln declared
Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Moreover, there were pragmatic reasons for eating turkey
rather than, say, chicken at a feast like Thanksgiving.
The birds are large enough that they can feed a table full
of hungry family members, and unlike chickens or cows,
they didn’t serve much utilitarian purpose like laying eggs
or making milk. Unlike pork, turkey wasn’t so common
that it didn’t seem like a suitable choice for a special
occasion, either. An interesting 2007 piece in
Slate discussed these reasons for turkey’s prominence,
but also made another intriguing point. The
publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 may have
helped force along the turkey’s cause as a holiday
delicacy when Scrooge magnanimously sends the
Cratchit family a Christmas turkey.
While the cranberries the Pilgrims needed were
probably easy to come by, making cranberry sauce
requires sugar. Sugar was a rare luxury at the time
of the First Thanksgiving, so while revelers may
have eaten cranberries, it’s unlikely that the feast
featured the tasty sauce. What’s more, it’s not
even entirely clear that cranberry sauce had been
invented yet. It’s not until 1663 that visitors to the
area started commenting on a sweet sauce made
of boiled cranberries that accompanied meat.
There’s the same problem with potatoes. Neither
sweet potatoes nor white potatoes were available
to the colonists in 1621, so the Pilgrims definitely
didn’t feast on everyone’s favorite tubers.
Winslow mentions in his writings that the governor
sent out a party of four men to do some fowling
for the feast, but the Pilgrims and Wampanoag also
enjoyed five deer as part of their feasting. The meat
supposedly arrived at the celebration as a gift from
the Wampanoag king Massasoit. On top of the
venison, other meats probably included lots of fish
and shellfish, which were staples of the Pilgrims’
diets. So if you want to wolf down a lobster or some
oysters in lieu of turkey on Thursday, nobody can
fault you for being historically inaccurate.
It may be the flagship dessert at modern
Thanksgiving dinners, but pumpkin pie didn’t
make an appearance at the First Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims probably lacked the butter and flour
needed to make a pie crust, and it’s not clear that
they even had an oven in which they could have
baked a pumpkin pie. That doesn’t mean pumpkins
weren’t available for the meal, though; they were
probably served after being baked in the coals of
a fire or stewed. Pumpkin pie became a popular
dish on 17th-century American tables, though,
and it might have shown up for Thanksgiving as
early as the 1623 celebration of the holiday.
Here is a healthy alternative for those
sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows.

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