The feast of Thanksgiving
The origin story we're all familiar with is a myth
Established to give thanks for our good fortune, this American holiday’s focus is a sumptuous repast now synonymous with roast turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie – but much of what we learned about the origin of Thanksgiving is a myth. True, the Pilgrims and about 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe did break bread together in Plymouth in 1621. On the menu were deer, waterfowl and flint corn. But early Virginia immigrants heralded their safe arrival in 1619 with a Thanksgiving meal. And long before that, in 1565, Spanish settlers in Florida got together with a village of the Timucua people for a banquet followed by Mass. Some claim the holiday was actually born in 1637 when Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop declared a day to give thanks in “celebration” of the colonists’ massacre of 400-700 Pequot men, women and children.
In 1789, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving. In the following century, several states began to observe it annually on various dates. In 1863, during the division and despair of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday, to fall each year on the final Thursday in November. In 1939, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date up a week, hoping to jump-start the Christmas shopping season. The public didn’t think much of his tinkering with a revered tradition, so in 1941 he changed the date to the fourth Thursday in November.
The observance isn’t called Turkey Day without reason: We consume 44 million of the birds each Thanksgiving in the U.S. The wild turkey is native to America (Benjamin Franklin favored it over our national symbol, the eagle), but the ancient Aztecs can claim credit for its domestication. The publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 popularized the gobbler as a favorite entree for festive occasions. After all, it can serve a crowd, and 88% of us will have a slice (or more) of it on Nov. 28.
When it comes to sides, every region has its favorites. New England gave us cranberries and pumpkin pie. The South contributed sweet potatoes and pecan pie. Whether to stuff the bird or not – and with what – is as hotly debated as political discussions around the dining table. Every family has its own time-honored traditions as to what components a spread must include, and I fear for anyone (especially me in my family) who would suggest otherwise.
The meal has evolved over time. A century ago, Madison’s Capital Hotel advertised its five-course Thanksgiving dinner in the Wisconsin State Journal. The main course was a choice of turkey with oyster dressing, roast chicken, prime rib or creamed sweetbreads. Side dishes included fried sauerkraut, and for dessert, plum pudding. The cost was $1.25. Modern technology introduced the likes of cranberry sauce in a can, Jell-O salad and Campbell’s green bean casserole. What hasn’t changed is the joy of guilt-free gluttony and lots of leftovers.
Despite the sometimes overcooked turkey, lumpy mashed potatoes and cold gravy, I’m thankful for a holiday that exalts family, friends and food.
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.
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