Thanksgiving in America continues to be one of the most traditional holidays. It still features the original four hundred year old activities of overeating, football, and complaining about Black Friday.
In the Hunter household, as in all of Indiana and much of the world that’s not outside this country, we battle the overeating. How? By serving food that the rest of the year we hate. Stuffing stuff. Cranberry things. Pumpkin anything. It was good enough for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, who the Pilgrims politely invited to share a meal in the new home they’d just stolen from the Wampanoag. The Indians brought a housewarming gift of deer, mostly because they didn’t want to eat cranberries or pumpkin.
But what was actually served at that original celebration? And did they really all sit down at long tables outside, in New England, in November? That’s a recipe for a nice heaping helping of frostbite.
The first Thanksgiving was a three day event, leaving one day each for the meal, football, and shopping. The Pilgrims were naturally dismayed to discover no mall or Wal-Mart in sight. Rumor had it there was a Target down the road, but both the trip and the name were a bit more dangerous at the time. They compensated by throwing another feast that third day, during which they discussed the football.
Governor William Bradford sent four men on a fowling mission beforehand. We don’t know for sure what they brought back, but it might have been turkey. It also might have been ducks, geese, or swans, which explains the song they invented about the meal and the entertainment. If it hadn’t taken so much time to memorize it, the song would have been “The Twelve Days of Thanksgiving”. That would have turned our holiday world upside down.
Why are game birds called “fowl”? Because they had no refrigeration. It was a warning: “Eat it fast, before it’s fowl!”
On a related note, this has carried over into football, which during the first Thanksgiving was so primitive it was watched on a black and white TV, with no remote control, or blimp. Whenever a player gets caught doing something that stinks, it’s called a foul. The spelling was changed during the Great Depression, when a letter shortage caused double U’s to be singled.
There was indeed an abundance of cranberries at the First Thanksgiving, mostly because the Natives used them as dye. (Good dye, although it tended to run in the washing machine.) By then the Pilgrims had run out of sugar, so there was no cranberry sauce or relish or anything cranberry. That’s one of the things they were thankful for.
Potatoes were … absent. The Spanish had discovered them in South America, but they weren’t popular with the English yet. Instead they probably had seafood—lobster, clams, oysters, all that stuff you find on the Thanksgiving menu today. Actually, these days the closest we get to that is either oyster dressing, or “see? Food!”
Pumpkin? Absolutely: in their pie, their coffee, donuts, milkshakes … kidding—Starbucks didn’t deliver. They did have pumpkins, but no butter or flour for any kind of crust. They may have hollowed out the pumpkins, filled the shell with milk, honey, and spices, and roasted them in hot ashes.
I’m not making this up. I get paid to do this research.
I’m sure you’re all wondering what kind of beer they washed all this down with. I mean, Sam Adams, right? That’s the state beverage of Massachusetts. But no, it turns out they hadn’t had time to make beer, and didn’t yet have apples for cider, so they drank water. This helps explain all those Pilgrim paintings with dour expressions.
Add this to native foods like plums, grapes, leeks, and squash, and you get … *gasp* … a meal that’s good for you! It turns out health food nuts aren’t a new thing; it’s just that back then it was involuntary.
Interestingly, I found no reference from historical records about stuffing being served at the first Thanksgiving. I suspect the Pilgrims planned it, until the Wampanoag heard about the idea:
“So, once we get the birds ready, we’ll mix old bread crumbs and tasteless vegetables together, throw a bunch of spices on them, and stuff them up the fowl butt. Instant side dish!”
“Um … we’ll just take our smallpox blankets and go.”
Imagine how they reacted to fruitcake.