Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thanksgiving - In the Beginning

Acrylic painting of Indian corn, 2x3 feet, by the author.
       Have you ever wondered what the first Thanksgiving was really like? What did the Pilgrims and their Indian guests eat? How does what they had compare with a modern feast? How would you prepare a modern feast if you had to start from scratch?
       Why think about this now, in January? Pretend you can't simply visit a supermarket to buy the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Pretend you'll have to grow whatever you want to serve for that occasion. What would you grow yourself? That's why now is the time to think about Thanksgiving. Now is when seed catalogs show up in your mailbox and you make plans for the summer. Of course most of us will not literally grow everything we'll consume for this holiday, but thinking about it in this manner could be a real eye-opener. A simple pumpkin pie becomes a major operation--and a genuine treat. I think that looking at the feast day in this light will make me more thankful for the ease of preparing the traditional meal as well as providing some useful information in self-sufficiency. I'll be exploring these questions and sharing what I learn here.
       First a little history. Everyone knows the first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 in Massachusetts as a religious holiday.
       As is so often the case, what "everyone knows" is questionable. San Elizario, Texas claims the first Thanksgiving was held there in 1598, and another claim comes from a plantation in Virginia for a 1619 "first." In addition, the Massachusetts event was a community harvest feast for the 53 surviving colonists and 90 Indians. Without the help of those friendly Indians, the entire colony probably would have starved. Even so, the Indians would not have been invited to a religious event, which would have been a day of prayer, not three days of gluttony. Unlike the modern-day feast, the 1621 one was not family oriented like it is today. Had it been, again, the Indians would not have been included. Nor was the 1621 event repeated annually. The next Pilgrim feast wasn’t until 1676, held in June. By this time the settlers weren’t getting along with the indigenous folk and they weren’t invited.
       In1863 President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national feast day. Before that it was not celebrated outside of New England. Now we can’t think about Thanksgiving without thinking "Pilgrims" but Pilgrims were not even linked to the holiday until late in the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until 1941 that the holiday received Congressional approval for national observance..
       Today turkey is traditional for Thanksgiving. There is no conclusive evidence that the first Thanksgiving included this meat. "Turkey" to the Pilgrims meant any wild fowl. One reason it may have gained favor as the meat of choice is that Ben Franklin advocated this noble, sharp-eyed bird as the national symbol. (Hard to credit, but true.) The feast most assuredly included venison, and probably fish, shellfish, clams, ducks, geese, swans, berries, fruit, peas, pumpkin, beets, beans, maybe onions, and maize.
        They had no flour for pie crust or bread, unless it was cornbread. The corn they would have used wasn’t the yellow dent we are familiar with now. It would have been multicolored Indian corn, with kernels as hard as rocks (almost).
        The Pilgrims had no domestic cattle to provide milk or butter. Europeans still considered potatoes poisonous. Pumpkin was probably peeled, disemboweled, cut up and boiled like we would potatoes. The phrase "American as apple pie" hadn’t been coined as apples were still an alien plant at that time. If they ate cranberries, it would have been as dried fruit, not the sauce we know. Sweet potatoes were found only much further south.
       I’ve already posted about growing your own grain for baking purposes, raising sweet potatoes, and processing sugar beets. Raising livestock for dairy products, eggs and meat is beyond the scope of what I intend here, but that is something you will want to consider if your goal is self-sufficiency. I’ll be exploring other ways to start from scratch for a truly homemade Thanksgiving feast in future articles. Subjects I expect to cover include corn, pumpkin, cranberries, potatoes and sourdough. I’m not an historian or even a famous cook, but this is a subject that I find intriguing and I simply hope to share what I know and learn about preparing for Thanksgiving throughout the year.
        Related posts:  07-24-11  Sweet Potatoes - The Edible Ground Cover
                                08-24- 11  Growing Your Own Wheat for Baking
                                12-17-11  Victorio Grain Mill - Product Trial
                                01-10-12  Sugar Beets to Molasses - Homestead Style

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