Emily Schwab: Earliest Settlers Enjoyed Long Feast, If Not "Traditional" Fare

Roundup: Talking About History

The holiday table has not always been this varied. That is, it didn't boast the array of popular dishes such as green bean casserole, Jello-O molds, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and candied sweets (no marshmallows, either). What started as a harvest feast in 1621 when English settlers and members of the native Wampanoag tribe of Patuxet, now called Plymouth, sat down together to celebrate has become one of the country's favorite celebrations.

That feast, says Kathleen Curtin, food historian at Plimoth Plantation, was actually an agricultural celebration and quite unlike today's Thanksgiving. The historical event was made up entirely of foods that were native to this area. It took place sometime between late September and early November, lasted at least three days, and included venison and wild fowl. Other likely candidates were geese and ducks, Indian corn, wild cranberries, which were used to sharpen broths, stewed pumpkin, shellfish and yes, turkey. At least that's what Curtin, Sandra Oliver, a Maine-based food historian, and the staff at Plimoth Plantation believe happened. Their new book, "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie" (Clarkson Potter), elaborates on this.

Even if the big bird wasn't around at the beginning, says Curtin, "turkey was certainly part of the 18th-century Thanksgiving." During that time, other meats were also on the groaning board. Recipes for chicken and mincemeat pies in the book are modeled after similar dishes from the era. Curtin, like other cooks, can relate to the popularity of good pastry crust with sweet fillings. "I always think in terms of pies for Thanksgiving."

Mincemeat pie, a typically English dessert, was followed by pumpkin pie. Though pumpkins, a common fall vegetable, have always been featured, it wasn't until recently that the orange flesh was pureed for pies. Curtin says that Libby's canned pumpkin is such a popular modern holiday staple that she included the canned pie recipe in the book.

Turkey joined the table gradually. The upper classes always enjoyed hunting and the fowl they bagged and they began giving it away, as well. "To demonstrate charity at Thanksgiving," write Curtin and the others, "the prosperous often distributed turkey to workers or poorer relations and neighbors so that fewer people missed out on a fine meal."

Though New Englanders had been celebrating the holiday for centuries, it was not until 1863 that Thanksgiving became official. At the same time, according to Curtin, new immigrants were taught the customs. "You should eat turkey, you should eat mashed potatoes, you should eat stuffing," Curtin says they were often told. In fact, immigrants welcomed the standard fare to their tables it was a way of assuming the new customs their school-aged children were learning but added a few twists of their own.

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