Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I wrote this last year, but I think I'll repost it every year around this time. If you're curious, I've included my menu for this year's Thanksgiving at the end of this article.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned from elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the English landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have some beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we discovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the English colonists at Plymouth and the Wampanoag, a Native American tribe. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part of the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes, because white potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to North America by 1621. The colonists also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the colonists, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the colonists and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!

Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave behind his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans, where his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned the language and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England, and returned to the New World with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.

But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth, where the Patuxet tribe lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, decided to kidnap Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans and sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When some local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all of this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the colonists until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine, and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2013 Menu Update: Last year I did a multi-course meal for Thanksgiving, and this year will be no exception! (Each course will also be paired with a wine or cocktail :)

Course One: Watercress and endive salad with roasted hazelnuts and cranberries

Course Two: Baked cherrystone clam and fried lobster tail with horseradish crème fraiche sauce

Course Three: Pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto

Course Four: Venison sausage with caramelized pear and cider

Course Five: Roast turkey with Irish Colcannon, sweet potatoes, and oyster dressing

Course Six: Banana pudding with meringue

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

4 comments:

Bill said...

I've never heard of Irish Colcannon before but it sounds very good and we'll probably try it some time.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, it's basically mashed potatoes mixed with boiled cabbage, scallions, and extra crème - very Irish (though, not quite fitting with 1621 because of the lack of potato thing; yet again, my family would shun me without them). I will say that they're the best tasting mashed potatoes I've ever tasted, for what it's worth.

Bill said...

We made some today with Swiss Chard instead of cabbage and it was fantastic. Thanks for the idea.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill, glad to hear it - I'll try that too!