Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!
If you live and/or visit the United State of America this November, you already know that Americans are celebrating one of their most important holidays this month – Thanksgiving. If you are new to the country and the American traditions, you might be wondering why Americans cook turkey (or another kind of poultry), when in just less than a month they are going to have it again for Christmas again.
It’s one of the things that does not surprise Americans, but many expats and tourists might not be as acknowledged with the tradition of Thanksgiving and the food that is served during the dinner. Why Turkey? Why the cranberry sauce? Why the yums (aka sweet potatoes), string beans, gravy, pumpkin pie?
If easily explained, without the reference to the historic books and Wikipedia – Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to feature the foods and drinks of what the first settlers in America could afford at the time, when they lost their first harvest and would have starved away if it wasn’t for the Native-Americans, who, despite the fact that they’ve been slowly but surely forced off their lands they’ve been occupying long before the Pilgrims (the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony) got off that Mayflower boat, helped the settlers to live through the tough season by sharing their crops and animal stock with the newcomers.
This is when the turkey came into the picture – it’s the bird that the Native-Americans cultivated on their land and they brought it to the Pilgrims, as well as the basics crops of potatoes (which are now being served at Thanksgiving as mashed), string beans (which over the years evolved into the green bean casserole dish) and cranberries that were growing by itself in the wild, which then were used to make the sauce and jam. The pumpkin and other Thanksgiving pies came in to the picture later and solidly stayed within the Thanksgiving tradition, as well as the other dishes now served during this holiday – like sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn, which ‘roots’, by the way, go back to the Native Americans as well, for whom the corn was marking the end of the [growing] season.
Each year the Native Americans will hold a meeting in the season, when the corn is ready to be stored away and thanks must again be given for food. This ceremony was called – gathering corn bread. Nearly every family prepared for this by baking a batch of fashioned corn bread. This bread was then brought to the longhouse – or the house, where the leader of the group administered and a speaker appointed who would then address the people, congratulating them on the success of their crop or harvest.
Giving ‘thanks’, thus, came from this exact tradition of the Native Americans – of giving ‘thanks’ for a successful harvest, as well as being thankful for health and for having food on a table as an appreciation of each time they could survive another year and give food to the loved ones. When the pilgrims lost their harvest, they could have starved to death if it weren’t for the Native Americans, who not only brought them the food from their own harvest but who also taught them to appreciate each meal they have, because there might not be one the next time… Now, do we eat nowadays what they eat in the past?
A little bit of the overall Thanksgiving history
Our modern holiday festivity bears little resemblance to the food eaten at the three-day 1621 harvest celebration at Plymouth Colony, the event now recalled as the “First Thanksgiving.” The Wampanoag and Plymouth colonists often ate wild turkey, however it was not specifically mentioned in connection with that 1621 harvest celebration. Edward Winslow said only that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of “fowl” – more likely from the scenario to be seasonal waterfowl such as ducks and geese. And what about the stuffing?
The history of stuffing
Yes, the Wampanoag and English did occasionally stuff the birds and fish, typically with herbs, onions or oats (English only). If cranberries were served at the harvest celebration, they appeared in Wampanoag dishes, or possibly to add tartness to an English sauce. It would be 50 years before an Englishman mentioned boiling this New England berry with sugar for a “Sauce to eat with …Meat.” In 1621 England, sugar was expensive; in 1621 New Plymouth, there may not have been any of this imported spice at all.
The history of potatoes
Potatoes, which had originated in South America, had not yet made their way into the diet of the Wampanoag in 1621 (though the Wampanoag did eat other local varieties of tubers). By 1621, potatoes, both sweet and white, had traveled across the Atlantic to Europe but they had not been generally adopted into the English diet. The sweet potato, originating in the Caribbean, was cultivated in Spain and imported into England. It was a rare dainty available to the wealthy, who believed it to be a potent aphrodisiac. The white potato was virtually unknown by the average early 17th-century Englishman. Only a few gentlemen botanists and gardeners were trying to grow this colonial oddity.
The history of pumpkin pie
But surely there was pumpkin pie to celebrate the harvest? Pumpkin — probably yes, but pie – probably not…The typical menu of Thanksgiving dinner is actually more than 200 years younger than that 1621 celebration and reflects both the holiday’s New England roots and a Victorian nostalgia for an imaginary time when hearth and home, family and community, were valued over progress and change. But while we have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available in 1621, just what was served is a tougher nut to crack.
The history of corn
Americans are known for putting corn syrup in everything: from yogurts to meets, which functions as a ‘natural’ preservative. It preserves the foods very well, but it’s not necessary healthy. There’s an abundance of corn production in USA, and we have to ‘blame’ the early settlers for it – for the Indian corn.
Though not specifically mentioned as a food on the menu, corn was certainly part of the feasts. The English often referred to the early corn as Indian corn. This corn was a staple for the Wampanoag and soon became a fixture in the cooking pots of New Plymouth. The English had acquired their first seed corn by helping themselves to a cache of corn from a Native storage pit on one of their initial explorations of Cape Cod. They later paid the owners for this “borrowed” corn. It is intriguing to imagine how the English colonists processed and prepared the novel corn for the first time in the fall of 1621. One colonist gave a hint of how his countrymen sought to describe and prepare a new grain in familiar, comforting terms: “Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, make as pleasant a meat as rice.” And some of the traditional English dishes – those of porridge and pancakes (and later bread) – were adapted to be used with native corn.
While many elements of the modern Thanksgiving holiday menu are very different from the foods eaten in 1621, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both and those dishes that we eat during the Thanksgiving nowadays are, actually, a combination of a few group settlers so no meal is the same as many modern families made their own additions to the holiday meal and introduced new dishes and drinks that have been passed along the generations, but the main ‘players’ of the meal will be always the same – the turkey, the corn, the potatoes, the beans, the stuffing and the cranberry sauce.
Here’s how the menu for a New England Thanksgiving dinner, taken from a letter written in 1779, looked like:
Haunch of Venison Roast Chine of Pork
Roast Turkey Pigeon Pasties Roast Goose
Onions in Cream Cauliflower Squash
Potatoes Raw Celery
Mincemeat Pie Pumpkin Pie Apple Pie
Indian Pudding Plum Pudding
Hence, there’s not really a more traditional Thanksgiving menu than the other; the settlers made their own rules with whatever was and/or became available at the time. Later, the turkey was often substituted with fish, seafood and/or beef. The more vegetables were cultivated, the more vegetable dishes made their way onto the holidays tables. Puddings and pies of all sorts were introduced. The turkey stuffing became more elaborate and diverse with the introduction of exotic spices and more grains and breads. The pies evolved into more customized deserts with the introduction and discover of exotic fruits, nuts, and manmade sweet concessionaires like whipped cream, caramelized chestnuts and dried fruit from the East.
However, one thing has not been changed over time. It’s the tradition of gathering with friends and family, sharing the meal, and thanking. The thanks-giving tradition has been especially important during the hardest times the country experienced – during the Great Depression, Vietnam War and the wars to follow. It’s such a prominent and important American tradition that each year the President of America makes sure the American troops – wherever they are – get to celebrate the American traditional holiday with the traditional Thanksgiving meal and are being thanked for serving the country away from home, to make sure their families and friends are safe.
So, when you sit down at the table today, don’t forget to thank everyone in presence and whoever could not join you tonight, for the food, as well as health, happiness, success that you are having right now, in the moment, because the good thankful karma could then follow onto the next year.
This is a truly nice family holiday and anyone who’s spent enough time in USA gets the ‘bug’ to celebrate this holiday. I know it personally as when we first came to this country some 20 years ago, my family was new to the holiday and its traditions, but with each year we grew more and more fond of it until the moment, when my Russian mother started to make our own Thanksgiving dinner with all the traditional dishes with a Russian twist, of course. And although the history of our ancestors has nothing to do with the Native Americans and/or the Plymouth community, nevertheless, we valued this holiday as another way to give thanks for what our family had. I think it’s one of the reasons so many non-Americans start celebrating this holiday – to have an opportunity to say thank you. And when I could no longer celebrate this holiday with my parents, because they moved to Europe, last year I decided to start my own Thanksgiving tradition at our house and cooked up my very first Thanksgiving dinner to share it with my partner and our friends. This marked my very first Thanksgiving dinner, which I intend to keep for my own family, someday.
If you’ve never made a Thanksgiving dinner yourself, click here to see many helpful videos on how to make a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Click on the Slideshow to see the meal I cooked up last year for the holiday, which I customized to the size and tastes of our family: I cooked a big chicken instead of turkey, did mushroom gratin based on one of our family favorite French dishes, made mashed potatoes, made squash with string beans casserole and made my mom’s Brussels sprouts with caramelized onions, raisins and nuts dish. The only dish I’ve cheated on was the pumpkin pie – we bought it. Nowadays, you can find many nice pre-cooked and ready to eat Thanksgiving dishes at the stores, but, of course, the best thing about this holiday is the homemade meal – just like they did it back in the days…
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Feel free to share with me your thoughts and/or twit it to me at @AlisaKrutovsky.