Friday, November 21, 2014

Thanksgiving 101

The First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).
A Little History

Giving thanks for a bountiful harvest is commonplace in almost all religions and societies; it is quite ancient in origin. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans feasted and paid homage to their gods after a successful harvest. Thanksgiving is also very similar to the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. In North America the history of Thanksgiving Day can be traced back to England and the Protestant Reformation. In the United States, Thanksgiving is a national holiday which is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November even though it is well past the actual harvest itself. Thanksgiving is also a statutory holiday in most jurisdictions of Canada and celebrated on the second Monday of October.

Did you know that in England days of thanksgiving and special thanksgiving services were an important aspect of the English Reformation during the reign of Henry the VIII? This was his Protestant answer to the large number of religious holidays that appeared on the Catholic calendar. For a little more history behind the holiday and for information on other countries that celebrate Thanksgiving or have a similar holidays click here

The First Thanksgiving

In 1620 after a rigorous 66 day voyage a small ship called the Mayflower dropped anchor near the tip of present day Cape Cod and it’s passengers were ready to embark on new lives. The English men, women and children aboard this vessel were a group of Puritans and separatists who were seeking a new home where they could practice their faith freely and others were lured by the promise of land ownership and new found wealth. After crossing the Massachusetts Bay the Pilgrims began to establish a new colony at Plymouth. During the first brutal winter many of the colonists remained on board the ship where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and other contagious diseases. Only half of the original 102 passengers survived to see the spring. When they finally moved ashore they were surprised when they met an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. They were soon introduced to other tribes including the Patuxet and the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims along side their Indian teachers, were taught how to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and also how to avoid poisonous plants. In 1621 after the first successful corn harvest the Governor at the time, William Bradford, called for a celebratory feast and invited the colonists and their local Native American allies. This first autumn harvest celebration lasted three days.

On the Menu

There is no historical record of the exact fare served at this first Thanksgiving celebration. Edward Winslow who chronicled the event noted that Governor William Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the feast. Wild turkey would have been likely plentiful in the region and was a common food source for the settlers and the Native Americans. It is also possible that the hunting party returned with other birds such as ducks, geese and swan. In lieu of a bread based stuffing, the birds may have been dressed with herbs, onions and nuts for extra flavor. Below is an interesting quote from explaining why people feel so sleepy after a big Thanksgiving meal. Surprisingly it is not just the fault of that big ole Turkey!

Did You Know?

Many people report feeling drowsy after eating a Thanksgiving meal. Turkey often gets blamed because it contains tryptophan, an amino acid that can have a somnolent effect. But studies suggest it’s the carbohydrate-rich sides and desserts that allow tryptophan to enter the brain. In other words, eating turkey without the trimmings could prevent that post-Thanksgiving energy lull.

The pilgrims who attended the first Thanksgiving feast probably got their fair share of meat as well. Winslow reported that the Wampanoag tribe arrived with their offerings which included five deer. Historians theorize that the deer was likely roasted on a spit over a fire and that the venison might have been used to cook up a stew. Culinary historians also believe that this first meal would have consisted of seafood which is not often found on today’s menu. Abundant in New England were mussels and they were often served with curds (a dairy product similar to cottage cheese). Bass, lobster and clams might have been on the table as well. Local vegetables that may have adorned the table would include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn was plentiful as well. Corn would not have been eaten on the cob but removed and turned into cornmeal. The cornmeal would be cooked into a porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses. Potatoes (mashed or roasted) were certainly not on the first Thanksgiving table. The potato was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards who brought them over from South America in 1570. It had not made it’s way back over to North America at the date of the first Thanksgiving feast! The native inhabitants were known to eat other plant roots like Indian turnips and groundnuts which may or may not have been served. Fruits might have included blueberries, plums, grapes, gooseberries, raspberries and as we know cranberries! The cranberries would not have been made into sauces or relishes as the Pilgrims had depleted their supply of sugar. This culinary tradition happened about 50 years later! The settlers and the Wampanoag tribe did eat pumpkin and squashes that were indigenous to the area but the colony lacked the butter and wheat flour to make a proper pie crust. The pilgrims improvised by hollowing out a pumpkin and filling it with milk, honey and spices to make a custard and then roasting the pumpkin in hot ashes. For a short course on 8 of your favorite Thanksgiving foods, check out this article from The Washington Post.

Becoming a National Holiday

The second Thanksgiving in 1623 was in celebration of the end of a long drought that prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast. Days of fasting and then thanksgiving became an annual or occasional practice in other New England settlements as well and during the American Revolution. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the United States in celebration of the end of the War of Independence and ratification of the US Constitution. In 1817, New York became the first of several states to officially adopt a Thanksgiving holiday and each state celebrated it on a different day. In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Ms. Hale waged her campaign for 36 years sending countless letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians. Abraham Lincoln finally honored her request during the height of the Civil War in 1863. Lincoln issued a proclamation to “heal the wounds of the nation” and a Thanksgiving celebration would be scheduled for the fourth Thursday in November of that year. It remained that way until 1939 when FDR moved the holiday up in order to spur retail sales during the depression. With much opposition, Roosevelt was pressed into signing a bill to make the official date of Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. For additional fun facts about Thanksgiving click here. For more about Thanksgiving traditions and modern Thanksgiving dishes go to this information packed page at from


Thanks for all your submissions! For more recipe ideas check out this great article from the New York Times which highlights Thanksgiving recipes state by state. Also, for a comprehensive guide and "how to" make your favorites dishes check out this tutorial, also from the New York Times.

Farm & Fork Society Member Recipes 

Cranberry Sauce with Crystallized Ginger
Whole Cranberry Sauce
Spicy Red Pepper Cranberry Relish
Overnight Soft Herb Rolls
Parker House Rolls
Foccacia with Roasted Butternut Squash
Butternut Squash Soup with Crisp Pancetta
Spinach Salad with Bosc Pears, Cranberries, Red Onion and Toasted Hazelnuts
Spiced Pumpkin, Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad
Roasted Butternut Squash with Cranberries
Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Pecans
Brussel Sprouts with Pecans and Cranberries
Sauteed Green Beans with Garlic and Country Ham
Green Beans with Lemon and Pine Nuts
Homemade Green Bean Casserole
Bistro Haricot Verts Casserole
Crunchy Snap Peas and Pearl Onions
Cumin Carrot Fries
Creamed Carrots
Dreamy Creamed Carrots, Onions and Mushrooms
Creamed Cipollini Onions and Mushrooms
Sherry Vinegar-Glazed Onions
Roasted Beets with Orange and Creme Fraiche
Cauliflower Gratin
Peas with Lemon, Mint and Scallions
Maple Glazed Sweet Potatoes and Apples
Sweet Potato Salad
Sweet Potato Souffle
Sweet Potato Gratin with Chile-Spiced Pecans
Maple Baked Sweet Potatoes
Fiery Sweet Potatoes
Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish Butter Sauce
Honey Glazed Root Vegetables
Kimchi Creamed Collard Greens
Strip House Creamed Spinach
Celery Root and Potato Gratin
Classic Mashed Potatoes
Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes
Danish Red Cabbage
Macaroni Au Gratin
Cornbread Brown Butter Stuffing
Mushroom and Leek Bread Pudding
Sheet Pan Stuffing with Brussels Sprouts and Pancetta
Zelda's Family Style Thanksgiving Stuffing
Juniper Brine
Ciabatta and Sausage Stuffing
Roast Turkey with Bourbon Pecan Stuffing
Good Eats Roast Turkey
Bouchon Roast Turkey
Porchetta Style Roast Turkey Breast
Everybody's Mushroom Gravy
All Purpose Gravy
Spicy Dried Fruit Dessert Sauce
Julia Child's Aunt Helen's Fluffy Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Brandied Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie
Chocolate Pecan Pie
Pecan Pie
Brown Sugar and Bourbon Cream
Bouchon's Apple Pie