|Today’s selection — from The American Plate by Libby H. O’Connell. The American celebration of Thanksgiving:
“To understand the importance of turkey in our culinary heritage today, let’s take a look at how it became the iconic food of America through its association with Thanksgiving, a vivid part of our shared, almost mythic past. The idea of Thanksgiving is based in part upon the natural inclination of agrarian groups of people to hold a festival in thanks for the harvest, and we humans have been celebrating the gathering-in of crops for millennia.
“The term ‘Thanksgiving’ originally included serious religious dedication, with several hours spent in church — and it started long before the famed feast between American Indians and colonists in Massachusetts. In 1519, at St. Augustine, Florida, the Spanish celebrated Thanksgiving with pork and chickpeas brought from the Old World. According to contemporary sources, a harvest dinner shared by Spanish settlers, missionaries, and American Indians took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1590s. At the Berkeley Hundred settlement in Virginia in 1618, the English dined on ham and gave thanks for their safety and survival.
“Of course, the 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts — where the ‘Pilgrims’ (the term is in quotes because they wouldn’t have labeled themselves that) were joined by ninety Wampanoag warriors — is the big dinner remembered every November. We know that four Englishmen went out hunting for that celebration and brought back unspecified fowl, which could be anything with wings — duck, geese, partridge, or yes, even turkey.
“They also may have served eel and shellfish, plus foods based on the Three Sisters [winter squash, maize, and climbing beans], which their indigenous neighbors had taught them to grow with such success. We know that the Indians brought venison. Cranberry sauce, which requires so much sugar, would not have made an appearance, although stewed pumpkin sweetened with honey or maple syrup may have been shared.
“The historical record about the harvest feast we celebrate as the first Thanksgiving does not specify a turkey, but it is clear that there was plenty of food at the celebration. As the colonial period progressed, the tradition of a harvest festival continued, particularly in the Northeast, where it was observed at different times in different colonies.
“Families traveled to be together and dined on turkeys as well as chicken pie, ham, and game. Women worked hard for weeks to present a table laden with different dishes, along with an abundant array of fruit pies and cakes, and distributed gifts of food to the poor. After the American Revolution, young families emigrated from New England, looking for farms of their own in the western territories, and brought the Thanksgiving tradition along with them.
“This particularly home-centered holiday grew in cultural importance before the Civil War, when it was championed by Sarah Josepha Hale, the Martha Stewart of her day. Cookbook author, novelist, and magazine editor, she published recipes for roast turkey with stuffing and pumpkin pie, along with editorials favoring the creation of a new national holiday. At that time, governors of several states declared Thanksgiving at some point in the late fall.
“Hale encouraged President Lincoln to make the feast day a single national holiday for all, uniting every American. With his uncanny political timing, Lincoln authorized this quintessential American celebration in 1863, just as things were looking up for the Union in the Civil War. …
“One reason why our images of Thanksgiving reflect the Pilgrim legend is that New England (and the North more generally) culturally predominated in the United States in the years after the end of the Civil War in 1865. And this was the era when popular artists created the images of our mythic New England forefathers and foremothers gathered around a scenic table, complete with a big turkey roasted to a golden fare-thee-well. So it is the story of the Wampanoags and the settlers of Plymouth, not Jamestown, Virginia, and certainly not St. Augustine, Florida, that schoolchildren have reenacted for more than a century. Quite possibly, other similar Thanksgiving celebrations between European settlers and American Indians occurred as well. We just didn’t hear about them.”