The day of the year, Americans enjoy an afternoon of good food and football.
We take a short break in the midst of the Christmas preparation series to commemorate Thanksgiving.
Did you know that originally Thanksgiving was a religious affair named ‘Thank God for Giving’ and an end of harvest festival.
How it all started
Little did an assortment of 102 religious separatists know, where they would end up when they boarded a small ship called the Mayflower and left the harbor of the British coastal town of Plymouth.
Lured by the prospect of a finding a new home where they could freely practice their religion and some others with high hopes to find prosperity, they headed for the new world.
After a treacherous and uncomfortable journey of 66 days, half of them arrived far north of their intended destination and landed at Cape Cod. One month later the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts and the pilgrims, as they became known, started work to establish a village in Plymouth.
The pilgrims endured a first harsh winter and most of them hardly came of the boat, when spring finally arrived the pilgrim colonists met with an English speaking Abenaki Indian, several days later the Abenaki Indian returned with a Pawtuxet tribe member who had been kidnapped by a British sea captain and sent into slavery, the tale goes that he escaped from his slavery ordeal and landed in London, from where he managed to return to his homeland.
Squanto, as the Pawtuxet was called, thought the colonists how to cultivate corn, extract juice from maple trees and how to catch fish from the river.
A year later, in November 1621, the first settler’s corn harvest was successful and the then appointed Governor William Bradford, organized a celebratory feast to commemorate the occasion.
A group of fledgling Native American allies, the Wampanoag, got invited to join the celebrations, now remembered as the first Thanksgiving celebration, November 1621.
The first Thanksgiving celebration lasted for three days with a menu quite different than the contemporary turkey, pumpkin pie, cakes and sweets we know today.
Lobster, seal and swan were on the pilgrims menu; together with corn which was plentiful available, history has it that the Natives added deer to the feast.
With no ovens and other modern kitchen equipment, food was prepared via the traditional Native Indian cooking methods.
Two years later, in 1623, a long drought threatened the corn harvest, prompting Governor Bradford to call for religious Thanksgiving fasting days. Religious fasting days became common by communities in other parts of New England as well, resulting in several days of Thanksgiving per year.
In 1789, George Washington gave the religious meaning of Thanksgiving a twist and asked Americans to express gratitude to the successful completion of the war of independence and the ratification of the constitution.
In 1817, Thanksgiving became an official Holiday in New York, and it took ‘Mary had a little lamb’ author Sarah Josepha Hale, another 36 years of writing letters to congress men in a campaign to convince the countries leaders to establish Thanksgiving as a national public holiday.
Finally Abraham Lincoln heeded her request and the last Thursday in November was appointed as Thanksgiving Day.
How did the first Thanksgiving menu change into today’s ‘traditional’ menu.
Beside swan, seal and lobster, often absent from today’s menus, other seafood could be found in abundance in the area and must have made an appearance on the dinner table. Mussels and clams could easily be harvested from the seaside. Beside corn, onions, beans, carrots and cabbage; lettuce and spinach were locally grown and made their way to the dinner table as well.
Cranberries, gooseberries, plums, grapes and raspberries are indigenous to the area, but did not end up in pies and sauces, sugar supply, brought along on the Mayflower was low, and furthermore no ovens were available preventing the cooks from baking pie crust.
Some form of custard is said to have been cooked in a pumpkin shell on open fire and served as dessert.
Wild turkeys ran around freely accompanied by other wild birds like water fowl
Many of America’s founding fathers had high regards for the wild turkey as an American symbol, which may explain turkey becoming the center piece of today’s celebrations, the evolution of cooking techniques with electricity and ovens made more changes overtime.
Personally I believe that the change of venue from outdoors to indoors must have been an important part of the menu change as well.
I dread the idea of having a deer on an open barbecue spit for hours and cooking clams, mussels and lobster on a fire pit on the last Thursday of November in the New England cold.
Whichever you choose for Thanksgiving Day, an afternoon of good food and football or an open fire adventure,.
I wish all my readers “Happy Celebrations”, make full use of your vacuum sealer to make your preparations easier and Bon Appetite.
By: Marinus Hoogendoorn