Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet

"Embarcation of the Pilgrims": depicting the myth (see below)
It's time for the annual Thanksgiving piece again.

It's always intriguing and instructive to watch the evolving coverage in the press and blogosphere:  above and beyond the predictable pious thoughts (gratitude for friends, family, and prosperity; throw in a word for the troops these days, too) and generally gentle historical debunking.

Eels: They're What's for Dinner

Foodways of course still loom large in the Thanksgiving press in any given year (often intersecting with debunkery).  In my first Thanksgiving post, two years ago, I quite naturally began with the historical record of the "first Thanksgiving" and the historical menu.   Among my favorite points there:
  1. Seafood was probably a major portion of the menu; the meats certainly included duck, goose, and venison, though some historians make a strong case for the wild turkey, as well.
  2. The celebration included gunfire and, probably, heavy drinking.
  3. The (presumed equivalent of) cranberries that the colonists knew from Europe were in fact not fruits, but pregnant insects.
In today's New York Times, James Prosek reminds us of the historical and current importance of one of those foods:  the eel. He begins by saying, in effect: forget for the moment the story about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims to farm by planting seeds along with a fish, to serve as fertilizer. They wouldn't have survived long enough to plant in the spring had they not had food in the winter, and one of the crucial sources—as they likewise learned from Squanto—was the eel.  Author of a new book on the fascinating fish, Prosek closes with an explanation of the threat to the species through unsustainable fishing practices and concludes:
What can we do to restore this creature that once made up 25 percent of the fish biomass of Eastern rivers? For starters, we can rehabilitate the local wetlands that nurture eels at all life stages, because eels historically fed not only humans, but nearly everything in the system, from striped bass to cormorants.

We also need to deal with dams that prevent the free exchange of life from the sea to inland waterways. If dams cannot be removed, then they should be equipped with eel ladders to help juvenile eels travel upstream. And hydrodam operators should consider turning off the turbines, which wound or kill eels, for a few hours on autumn nights during the peak of vast unseen migrations of the adult fish to the sea.

Let’s be thankful, then, for the beautiful but forgotten Thanksgiving eel. And let’s accept responsibility for preserving the fish that did so much to sustain the newcomers to these shores so many years ago.
As for the place of the sweet potato on the Thanksgiving table: as I pointed out in 2008, it was evidently not available to the Massachusetts colonists in 1621. The Library of Congress has a nice post on the food, in particular, the "candied" form familiar to us from the modern holiday menu. The plant is documented in the 8th century BCE in South America and, during the Age of Exploration, came to Europe, where it was for long the potato. (In fact, the piece explains, "It wasn’t until after the 1740’s that the term sweet potato began to be used by American colonists to distinguish it from the white (Irish) potato.") Although recipes for a prepared dish date from the first American cookbook of 1789 and appear elsewhere in the next half-century, it seems that the candied and casserole dishes really established their popularity in the final third of the nineteenth century. As chance would have it, two pieces in the Times address the fate of "the noble root" in the 21st century.

Kim Severson details the meteoric rise of a food that the Wall Street Journal  three years ago characterized as an obligatory once-a-year staple and 364-day loser (not the first time that publication has been wrong about something, of course).  The efforts to promote the crop that the paper chronicled and dismissed have in the meantime yielded an annual US harvest of two billion pounds. There are multiple reasons for the food's new allure, ranging from nutritional advantage to the consumer to economic advantage to southern farmers shifting away from tobacco.  Ultimately, though, Severson tells us, "sweet potato fries are at the center of the revolution." (Among our local establishments noted for serving this delicacy, one might mention Judie's, The Pub, and the Amherst Brewing Company. For eels, you'd have to venture a bit farther afield. A decade ago, Steve Kemper had a nice piece about that delicacy in Yankee Magazine.)

And like the eel, the sweet potato has a claim on our moral as well as gustatory and historical faculties.  Nicholas Kristof points to its growing role in staving off disease.  As he explains, malnutrition, particularly in third-world countries, is often the result of "lack of micronutrients" rather than of calories.  The American sweet potato is packed with beta carotene, but it does not grow well in Africa, where the prevalent variety, a staple, lacks this nutrient.  Distributing Vitamin A capsules is difficult and expensive, so scientists instead cross-bred the potatoes to develop a variety that combined the nutritional value of the one with the environmental appropriateness of the other.  This process of "biofortification," Kristof explains, is "one of the hot words in the global poverty lexicon." In this case, it's a matter of conventional hybridization.  An even hotter word, however, is "genetically modified."  As Kristof observes, "golden rice," which uses genes from daffodils and corn to produce Vitamin A, is another potential game-changer, but resistance (as I have noted elsewhere) is high and often irrational. In his words:
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. No battle against poverty goes smoothly, or as planned. And the European left’s sad hostility to scientific tinkering with crops may slow acceptance of biofortification. If that hostility gains ground, it will be harder to save children from blindness and death.

The Pilgrims:  Socialists, Capitalists, or Just Regular Seventeenth-Century Calvinist Guys?

Since we're on the topic of moralizing, what really struck me this year was that so much of the commentary was political, or about the politicization of the holiday and the Pilgrims.  The use of the past as a mirror or foil for our own values is of course nothing new, and the Pilgrim myth is but one of the most familiar to us. As James and Patricia Scott Deetz say, such "origin myths" are universal:
And in a nation that is so religiously diverse, it seems most appropriate that a secular event, no matter how transformed over time, serve such a purpose. But the Thanksgiving myth is only a part of a larger national myth for Americans; that of the Pilgrims and their supposed role in the making of modern America.
[The Times of Their Lives:  Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (NY: Anchor Books, 2000), 9]
I happened to pull out one random such example from my personal library, Mrs. Abby B. Whelpley's "The Embarcation of the Pilgrims," from The Christian Family Annual, edited by the Revered David Newell, volume 3 (NY, 1845).  The accompanying steel engraving (above), depicting the English port from which they sailed, is so riddled with anachronisms that one is tempted to believe they were deliberate rather than naïve, as if to underscore the presentist interpretation of that usable past. (A more likely, book-historical explanation—not least because it is more common to depict the departure from the Netherlands—is that someone recycled an existing plate and just added the caption.)

The piece begins by citing the peregrinations of the Pilgrims, as they went from Lincolnshire to first Amsterdam and then Leyden before deciding "the great question whether they should seek a home in the new world." "They were alarmed," Mrs. Whelpley tells us, "lest religion should become extinct with their posterity, for it was daily suffering from the licentiousness of the continent; and to use their own words 'they felt an inward zeal and great hope of laying some foundation for propagating the religion of Christ to the remote ends of the earth.'" (369)

Along the way, the essay also calls attention to the role of women:
   While we speak of the men whose lofty purposes were thus formed amidst numerous discouragements, a tribute of praise and respect is due to those females who, with not less magnanimity of spirit, forsook all the enjoyments, and in many instances, the luxuries of home, in an enlightened country, to join in the enterprise of planting the gospel seed in the wilderness, which they fondly hoped might yet 'rejoice and blossom as the rose;' they refused not the cross, but, with smiles of encouragement, cheered the hearts of their husbands, brothers and friends, in the glorious cause. (371-72)
Not third-wave feminism or anything like that, and rather, the traditional role of the helpmeet, perhaps retroactively infused with the ideology of republican motherhood, but interesting to note.

And it condemns those among their number for "faults of both opinion and feeling," when "their ranks were disgraced by a Henry Vane, a Hugh Peters, and others who evinced the same spirit as their persecutors."

The piece moves toward its conclusion:
After a protracted and tedious voyage, the pilgrims arrived in America in December, O.S. [=Old Style, i.e before the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar; JW], and soon the vice of praise and thanksgiving resounded along the snow-clad shore.  But the hand of the Lord was upon them to sanctify them yet further, by severe trials; scarcity of food, cold, hardship and fatigue, swept half their number into the grave, so that of the one hundred and one who landed on Plymouth rock, only fifty remained in the following spring, and truly it may be said that the good which afterwards sprang up in New England, was sown in tears and sorrow, over the graves of their loved ones. (372)
Mrs. Whelpley then offers the lesson of the story: the Pilgrims endured these trials of fate with Christian fortitude, and became the symbolic and practical founders of the American system, both devout and democratic.
The pilgrim fathers elicited the spark which illuminated this continent. They brought the Bible with them, which they made the rule and guide of their designs, and which was the instrument of laying broad the foundations of our institutions, civil, religious and literary. One of the first steps was to build a church, and by the side of it a school-house, and in both was deposited and taught the word of God. The Sabbath was truly sanctified among them, and where in this land is it so sacredly regarded to this day as in New England?  They laid the basis of their exertions in the extended establishment of common schools, considering it a point of conscience to furnish their posterity with the means of intellectual advancement; and they early laid the foundations of those higher seminaries of learning which are the brightest ornaments of this country.  They brought over with them the missionary spirit; their efforts were early turned to the conversion of the Aborigines, and in a short time many of them were brought under the saving influence of the gospel.  They implanted deep in the very soil, a love of liberty, struggling against, and resisting every thing that interfered with the exercise of their religion; and doubtless they had a principal share in laying the foundation of our national independence; indeed their principles were formed on a love of liberty, civil and religious. (372-73)
It's easy to make fun of this sort of stuff as pious posturing and propaganda, yet, when taken within the appropriate limits—the Puritans and Pilgrims were not devotees of abstract or secular civil libertarianism in the modern sense—it is arguably more accurate than the negative stereotypes.

As I try to explain to students, Puritanism is a funny thing. Like the Pharisees, the Puritans have become a caricature and a smear word bearing little resemblance to the historical reality.  The average person has some vague idea of Puritanism and repressive personal morality, witch-burning, and the like. In fact, a number of my progressive and even radical as well as evangelical friends are big admirers of the Puritans.  Every so often I think we should start a secret fan club.  Sure, the English Puritans were at times a stern lot.  I myself like the theater, but hell, they overthrew the monarchy and cut off the head of the king, paving the way for future revolutions (remember that Patrick Henry speech?).  Isn't that worth something?  As for our proverbial Pilgrim forefathers, they wore colorful clothing and habitually consumed alcohol in quantities that would nowadays get them sent to rehab clinics in a flash (one reason they needed to make landfall in Massachusetts was because their beer stocks were running low, and they needed a new supply of fresh water). And if they took a dim view of adultery, it was in part because they adhered to a single sexual norm rather than allowing men the luxury of the traditional double standard. The Pilgrims took sex seriously because they viewed it as a strong and normal human urge. Court records show that, in mid-seventeenth-century Plymouth, at least 11 percent of marriages involved premarital sex (and those were just the people who got caught).

As Harvard's David Hall, one of the great historians of early New England, points out in the pages of the New York Times ("Peace, Love, and Puritanism"), it behooves us for several reasons, practical as well as intellectual, to ask who the Puritans were and what they sought to achieve rather than just what they ate.  He blames Nathaniel Hawthorne for establishing the stereotype of Puritans as "self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them."
Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.
For this reason, no Puritan would have agreed with the ethic of “self-reliance” advanced by Hawthorne’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, people should agree on what was right, and make it happen. Wanting social peace, the colonists experienced plenty of conflict among themselves. It was upsetting when this happened, but among the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.
This is where our own famously contentious Amherst Town Meeting (1, 2,) came from.  Hall highlights the political:
The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. Believing that the rule of law protected against arbitrary or unjust authority, the civil courts practiced speedy justice, empowered local juries and encouraged reconciliation and restitution. Overnight, most of the cruelties of the English justice system vanished. Marriage became secularized, divorce a possibility, meetinghouses (churches) town property.

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America. 
Meanwhile, arch-conservatives have been attempting to claim the Pilgrims as the ancestors of their own brand of liberty. Over on the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin regurgitates an older piece by fringe economist Benjamin Powell.  The Pilgrims' early problems, Powell insists, were the results of "Bad economic incentives":
Once the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Plantation abandoned their communal economic system and adopted one with greater individual property rights, they never again faced the starvation and food shortages of the first three years.
(Suffice it to say that the situation was a good deal more complicated, involving, for example, various groups of settlers arriving under differing legal and economic agreements. Read any real history of Plymouth for the full explanation.) But why stop there?   On the floor of the US House, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri) explained:
It might be helpful to think back and say, there’s more to Thanksgiving than the Pilgrims. They were a group of people who were willing to change the system, to think of different ideas. They came here and separated civil and church governments. They came here and created the model of a written constitution, the idea that the government should be the servant of the people. […] They came here with the idea that after trying socialism that it wasn’t going to work. They realized that it was unbiblical, that it was a form of theft, so they pitched socialism out. They learned that in the early 1620’s. [video here]
So which was it:  were the Pilgrims resolute anti-socialists from the start (Akin), or were they in fact, more akin (no pun intended) to neo-conservatives—socialists who got mugged by reality (Powell)?  Either way, these authorities insist, you can be damned sure they were against socialism in the end. You betcha.  Believe it or not, this sort of inanely anachronistic discussion is taken quite seriously in some circles.  As for me, I'll take my early New England history straight up from those who actually understand it. David Hall's major new book on the Puritans and "the transformation of public life" will be out in the spring.

Even overseas commentators are keeping an eye on our wackiness over the holiday weekend. The Spiegel noted, with a mixture of amusement and alarm, the rise of these crackpot tea party version of early American history:  "How the Pilgrim Fathers Abolished Socialism."  Over in the UK, Harry's Place called attention to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Thanksgiving proclamation of 1933 (cited in a Washington Post editorial), his first year as President, when the nation faced far greater and more numerous crises than it does today:
“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors. May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; . . . for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”
and commented:
“[S]triving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good”? “May we be grateful for… the new spirit of dependence one on another”?

And some people call Obama a socialist.

Happy Thanksgiving to our American readers.
Even as European bloggers are watching our historical celebrations and appropriations with interest, the folks at History channel can't be bothered to take or teach American history seriously on this most popular of American holidays:  they're too busy pumping out pap about aliens from outer space. It took up hours of programming.  But more on that a bit later.


• The 2008 Thanksgiving post (origins of the holiday; foodways)
• The 2009 Thanksgiving post (some comments on teaching the history of Thanksgiving; some links)
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