A Brief History of the Thanksgiving Meal

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A Brief History of the Thanksgiving Meal

thanksgiving meal

History books tell us that in the fall of 1621 a feast of thanksgiving was held. European Pilgrim settlers of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts who had traveled to America on a ship called the Mayflower celebrated a successful crop of corn with their new neighbors, the Wampanoag Indians/Native Americans. The Indians had instructed the Pilgrims in agricultural processes and thus, were given credit for the successful harvest.

Although there has been some disagreement as to what was actually eaten during the festivities, the tradition has continued. An official Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated in the United States on the third Thursday of November since Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863. The reason for being thankful at that time had nothing to do with corn, but it marked the end of the war. Today, Thanksgiving Day continues to serve as a time to be thankful for the bounties of life.

The first Thanksgiving meal

A surviving letter from Mayflower passenger, Edward Winslow, dated December 11, 1621, told of corn being planted in the New World with the help of the Indians. As a celebration for the corn’s harvest, several days of feasting took place when that corn was enjoyed alongside fowl and deer meat. The deer meat was a gift from the Indians. The fowl could have been turkey, but was just as likely to be wild goose or duck. It was probably boiled and roasted and stuffed with herbs and onions. Smoked clams, mussels, and oysters were also on the table.

The correspondence goes on to point out that not all crops had been successful that year, namely barley and peas, but they found themselves with more than they could eat after a period of famine. Other foodstuffs that were plentiful in the region are also mentioned. Those included fish, lobsters, eels, mussels, herbs, grapes, strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and plums. That tells us that any of these could have been part of that first meal of thanksgiving.

According to Rabbi Barry Silver of the Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor in Boynton Beach, Florida, modern America has lost sight of the Jewish origins of Thanksgiving. He says that when colonists survived crossing the ocean plus a tough winter in their new homeland, they reached into Jewish Scripture, found the harvest festival of Sukkot and created Thanksgiving. The word “turkey” comes from the Hebrew word, “tuki,” meaning big bird. The focus on a family meal in which prayers of thanksgiving are offered for God’s providence and protection belies its Jewish origins, he says.

The modern Thanksgiving meal

Whatever the case, the typical Thanksgiving Day meal of today revolves around turkey as the main dish. Other meats that signify abundance, like ham and roast lamb, are often on the table as well. Traditional trimmings include mashed potatoes, gravy, and some kind of stuffing, or dressing, which might include oysters, vegetables, or dried fruits mixed with a binder like bread crumbs or wild rice. Corn is a tradition most people adhere to along with other seasonal root and cool weather vegetables. Cranberry sauce, often from a can, adorns many a Thanksgiving dinner table, as well as pumpkin or sweet potato pie. A lot of what we eat today could have easily been served in 1621.

Americans have incorporated many ethnic dishes into their traditional Thanksgiving Day menus. Pans of lasagna are common for those with Italian roots and macaroni and cheese may be added on southern tables. No matter what food is enjoyed, Thanksgiving Day is a time for giving thanks for all our blessings. It is one of the country’s favorite holidays.

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