Thanksgiving is not the time for experimentation. Cooks tasked with preparing the centerpiece bird developed their recipe years ago, and other than a few minor tweaks here and there, rely upon it as infallible gospel. Anyone who decides on a one-off deviation from the perfected process is doing so merely to satisfy their own inflated ego and, as such, deserves to fail in front of hungry friends and family.
The turkey isn’t the only Thanksgiving element that drips with tradition like so much gravy. There’s a long list of side dishes that must make an appearance, while the television must be tuned to football and a rarely seen aunt or uncle must make everyone uncomfortable with their political gum-flapping. And Black Friday notwithstanding, for many Turkey Day is also the last stand against holiday consumerism as it has yet to be sullied by the scourge of “gift-giving.”
What most demonstrably sets Thanksgiving apart is that its origin can be traced back to a specific event held over the course of three days in the primordial days of the United States of America. We all sat through the elementary school lesson about the feast shared by the “Pilgrims and Indians” in 1621 Plymouth, MA, where, in simple terms, the New World colonists used food to thank their Native American allies, the Wampanoag, for helping them survive the previous brutal winter.
Who’s Bringing What?
Besides turkey, our traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes a valiant mix of side dishes like stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, the dreaded green-bean casserole and a sweet potato concoction often topped with marshmallows for some reason. But according to Smithsonian.com, the “first Thanksgiving” featured much slimmer pickings. Smithsonian serves up two historical sources that seem to describe the original menu. One comes from Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended the feast and in a written letter to a friend, stated that, “Our governor sent four men on fowling,” while the native guests “went out and killed five deer.” The other source, William Bradford, the governor mentioned in Winslow’s letter, added “Besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.”
However, wild turkeys and venison might not have been the feat’s primary proteins. There were likely ducks, geese, swans, passenger pigeons (now extinct in the wild…whoops), quail and scores of smaller birds that have been lost to history. There was also a much greater emphasis on sea meat—otherwise known as fish and shellfish. According to historical records cited by the Smithsonian, the native Wampanoags were skilled at drying and smoking fish, and would likely have prepared cod, eels, mackerel, lobster, clams, oysters, scallops and more.
Side Dishes For Days?
Man cannot gorge on meat alone, and thus, no less than 15 side dishes are mandatory at every Thanksgiving feast. But at the first Thanksgiving, side dishes were much different. Those potatoes you love so much were exotic foods that had not yet made it to North America from the Caribbean and South America. Cranberries weren’t utilized in a “sauce” until about five decades later when some Englishman decided to boil them in sugar.
Meanwhile, corn was likely only used in grain form in bread and porridge. And pies? Sorry, but the colonists did not have butter or flour. With the Wampanoags being a well-seasoned woodlands tribe, the natives probably brought along plenty of nuts, along with flint corn (that colorful corn we only hang on our doors), an assortment of beans and lots of pumpkins and squashes. So, suffice to say the first Thanksgiving meal was clearly meat-forward.
Anyone Else Still Hungry?
As the first Thanksgiving was a three-day, Woodstock-esque ode to food, it probably also serves as the origin of “leftovers.” One can imagine a Pilgrim groaning about how full he is as he unbuckles his belt, hat and shoe buckles, only to reemerge a few hours later to cram every element of the meal between slices of cornbread for the world’s first “Thanksgiving leftover sandwich.” However, the Smithsonian says that evidence suggests leftover meat, along with bones and other ingredients, were likely thrown into a pot for a day-after soup of sorts.
In no uncertain terms, Thanksgiving is the greatest American holiday. Sure, this country is dotted with suspect behavior toward Native Americans, but never let history get between you and your gravy.