Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece

If it's Thanksgiving, it's time for the inevitable pieces, usefully (?) reminding us of the distance that separates our ritual collective memory from the historical reality.

I say, "pieces," meaning mainly items in the print media or internet news and blogosphere, because television seems to have become ever more reticent. Not many years ago, the cable if not broadcast channels would show some conventional historical/biopics such as "Plymouth Adventure" (1952).  Not even that nowadays.  History Channel is running one program on the history of the holiday, which was not without merit: e.g., explaining something of the first Thanksgiving, pointing out that the holiday did not become a national one until the Civil War (including the role of Godey's Lady's Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale in relentlessly promoting the festival along with a New England-centric view of US history, until she at last won Lincoln's support) and an official federal one till 1941, tracing the evolution of the great family holiday in the twentieth century, and even acknowledging Native American protests at Plymouth. Admittedly, the website had a generous range of material.

Both of the pieces on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times argued, in different ways, but with likeminded political-didactic intent, that we could learn valuable lessons from a fuller knowledge of the past.

Andrew Beahrs, in "Where the Wild Things Were," cites both Mark Twain's writings and the records of the first Thanksgiving to make the point that game and other wild plant and animal foods, once an integral part of the celebration, have vanished and yielded to store-bought and even prepared foods:
Preserving or restoring the wild foods that remain begins with appreciating what they have to offer — extraordinary taste and smell, certainly, but also the joy of experiencing the marshes and mountains and lakes these plants and birds and animals rely upon. We have a great deal to learn from Twain’s instinctive premise: that losing a wild food means losing part of the landscape of our lives.
Kenneth C. Davis, in "A French Connection," uses a little-known fact of as the point of departure for a riff on our long history of intolerance and violence: French Huguenots came to Florida more than half a century before the Pilgrims set sail, and celebrated their own Thanksgiving--only to be slaughtered by the Spanish Catholics who founded St. Augustine.
The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida’s shores so many years ago.
Having no such weighty message, I'll content myself with the delectare rather than prodesse, and a glance at the original menu:

The only eyewitness of the account comes from a letter by Edward Winslow to a friend in England in 1621:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
History Channel, citing Plimoth Plantation Food Historian Kathleen Curtin, lists what may have been and what was definitely not on the menu. In the former category are many of the usual foods, though most strikingly, also (cf. Beahrs) seafood (cod, eel, clams, lobster) and more wild fowl (in addition to the obligatory turkey, goose, and duck:  crane, swan, partridge, and eagles) and game (seal, in addition to the expected venison).  What was definitely not there:
Surprisingly, the following foods, all considered staples of the modern Thanksgiving meal, didn't appear on the pilgrims's [sic] first feast table:
Ham: There is no evidence that the colonists had butchered a pig by this time, though they had brought pigs with them from England.
Sweet Potatoes/Potatoes: These were not common.
Corn on the Cob: Corn was kept dried out at this time of year.
Cranberry Sauce: The colonists had cranberries but no sugar at this time.
Pumpkin Pie: It's not a recipe that exists at this point, though the pilgrims had recipes for stewed pumpkin.
Chicken/Eggs: We know that the colonists brought hens with them from England, but it's unknown how many they had left at this point or whether the hens were still laying.
Milk: No cows had been aboard the Mayflower, though it's possible that the colonists used goat milk to make cheese.
When it comes to information on the Pilgrims, I still always turn to The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (NY: Anchor Books, 2000), by the pioneering historians of material culture, James and Patricia Scott Deetz. They point out that the only original account suggests "a celebration bordering on the rowdy, with sounds of firearms being discharged accompanying talking and shouting, in two languages, and the consumption of quantities of food"--and contains not a word about "giving thanks":  "Such an image is entirely at odds with the manner in which Thanksgiving has been portrayed in pictorial form, a solemn group of people seated primly at long tables and partaking of the traditional turkey, among other foods" (5). The only demonstrably present meats--based on a later passage in Winslow's famous letter--were "ducks, geese, and venison" (7).

My favorite tidbit in the dietary domain involves the cranberry.  The interesting thing is not that cranberries were available and not eaten, but what contemporaries called them: "alkermes berries," which they knew from Europe:
The strange fact is that alkermes berries are actually bright-red pregnant female insects found in the Mediterranean, which were long thought to be a vegetable.  Their juice was used both as a dye and a cordial. (7)
Take a close look next time you pass that bowl of relish.

And the Deetzes also adds beverages, which Curtin strangely leaves out:  "the likelihood of beer in generous quantities seems quite high.  Beer was consumed by all seventeenth-century English people in quantities that today would seem excessive." In fact, a journal kept on the Mayflower indicates that the a thirst for malty libations even helped to determine the site of their historic settlement:  "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer . . . ."(8)

Guns and beer (a shot and a brew): what could be more American than that?

I'm thankful that the settlers in Plymouth weren't the drab bunch of prigs depicted in our schoolbooks.  History is usually more interesting than legend.


• Mass Moments on the First National Day of Mourning organized by Native Americans in 1970

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