( “Thanksgiving Grace 1942 at home of Earle Landis” photo by Marjorie)
On the Travel Writers radio show with Graeme Kemlo, Melbourne Australia
Today Thanksgiving in America means turkey, football, a groaning family table and a day off for the holiday – unless you work for some heartless greedy retailers. But we’re not here for that debate. I want to let you know a few interesting facts about Thanksgiving.
According to Virginians, the first one was not at Plymouth but happened at what is now Berkeley Plantation along the James River. Folks in the Virginia Commonwealth insist that the first public Thanksgiving took place well over a year before the Thanksgiving of the pilgrims in Massachusetts when Captain John Woodlief and a column 38 of newly-arrived English colonists walked to a rolling slope along the James River and prayed in thanks for a safe arrival to the New World on December 4, 1619. The contingent from Berkeley Parrish in England settled along the James on land that was to become historic Berkeley Plantation. Their vow, now carved on a brick gazebo there, marks the spot believed to be where Woodlief and his men knelt beside the river that day in the New World and prayed:
“Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
But the “ official” Thanksgiving as taught from the history books in our schools say that first Thanksgiving was in what is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 to celebrate the first Autumn harvest by the Pilgrim colony. It was attended by some indigenous peoples called the Wampanoag. Remember this was well before the US was The United States of America. These settlers here were from England. And although the official notion is that most from Europe came to flee persecution because of their beliefs ( these Pilgrim‘s were Separatists from the Church of England), most colonists were here to make their fortunes in the new world whether on their own or sponsored by expedition company or king.
What we do know is the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, celebrated the Pilgrim’s very survival since landing in 1620. They feasted on wild turkeys yes but also any fowl they shot. Some say the Wampanoag brought deer to roast. They also had New World foods: pumpkin, squashes, corn, scallops, oysters, small fish and mammals.
Just as the first peoples brought the bounty of their local environment to share with the Pilgrims and their feast, people in America do the same today. Thanksgiving, an official National holiday on the 4th Thursday of November only since F.D. Roosevelt’s presidential decree in 1941 selected the exact week ( Lincoln had named the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving back in 1863 but it shortened the Christmas retail season by a week and might have impacted the recovery from the Depression in late 1930), differs regionally according to local taste and the traditional seasonal availability of the food gracing the table. These are of course generalizations as many food and side dishes change the deeper you go or vary from neighborhood, city or town. What is the most important thing to me about Thanksgiving is the recalling all the Thanksgiving’s past and reconnecting through food memory each year to those that are no longer sitting around your table. So even if you try out a new recipe there are foods you always prepare.
In the Midwest States with their Great Plains you might have wild- rice stuffing with your cider-glazed turkey.
The Pacific Northwest has a bounty of seafood so you might start with a smoked salmon pate or dip, have Chanterelle mushroom gravy with your fresh turkey, Pinot Noir Cranberry sauce and possibly if the season is open- some fresh Dungeness Crab from the coast.
California cuisine, especially around San Francisco/ Napa might feature marinated olives with lemon and rosemary as a appetizer and sourdough stuffing with your bird, which might be a duck.
South Western states influenced by their proximity to Mexico you might find cornbread jalapeno stuffing, whipped chipotle sweet potato and a pumpkin flan.
In the deep South it’s called dressing and it is usually cornbread. You might start with Pimiento cheese toast, Maybe some oysters in your dressing if you are lucky to live in Louisiana or Alabama along the coast, even Blue Crab. Ok yes you might fry your turkey. For dessert a lovely pecan pie laced with Bourbon or sweet potato pie is likely to appear.
East Coast – Mid-Atlantic states love blue crab too. So again depending on whether the season is open you may enjoy a starter of succulent sweet crab, or crab soup. Maybe some crab apples in your stuffing and a pumpkin cheesecake.
New England as far up as Vermont could have Cheddar cheese crackers, a maple glazed turkey with chestnut stuffing, mince meat pie and Boston always has Boston Brown Bread. You might even have venison if it is dear season.
In multi-cultural Hawaii, my home, I can speak to those niche celebrations and what might be on the table is definitely there because of ancestry. Most everyone has a turkey. Lots of locals like to cook it Hawaiian style in an imu ( heated stones in the ground covered with sand) overnight. Tender and fabulous. They may have fresh Opihi, fish and poi. Japanese folks will usually start with sashimi, possibly a tray of beautiful sushi and many times seasonal delights popular in Japan and carried by a local Japanese department store on Oahu called Shirokya. Persimmons, special pastries; and noodles always. It also depends where you live in the islands. On Oahu’s more relaxed windward side it was traditional in one Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino house to serve turkey, potato salad, Chinese noodles, Beef Broccoli, Kim Chi pickle, butter rolls and a Pumpkin Crunch Cake made from a recipe the matriarch had been given “ by my lady-friend.” Everyone brought something. My own mother who was born in Massachusetts, was into the full presentation and everything from scratch. For a week she’d polish silver, check the china service, shine glasses, iron the linens, shop, cook, clean and set out the fruit-filled cornucopia. When the day arrived my parents were pooped but I truly miss all of the fuss and sitting at the kids table watching the Pilgrim man and the turkey candle burn down as we licked the Mince pie’s Brandy hard sauce off a spoon while the sound of the ice tinkled in the grown-ups’ glasses and their warm laughter lit up the dining room.
I remember one Thanksgiving after the plates had been filled from the buffet, I was allowed to give the prayer before the meal. I was careful to name everyone around the table, express my concern for the safe return of servicemen in Vietnam, gave thanks for the feast before us and the moment. I don’t remember thanking my country but I did thank God for my family. I think that is the essence of Thanksgiving; sharing with family. And that is why so many Americans travel in crazy storms, battle delays, long lines and nutty schedules. Just to be home.