Right, I promised something about pumpkin pie, or at least some fare less likely to produce indigestion than the end of the world as we know it (although the conversation during the Thanksgiving holiday with the extended family did, perhaps inevitably, ultimately turn in that direction).
As we all know (or think we know) from grade-school history, the official First Thanksgiving was observed by the English pilgrims, with their Wampanoag neighbors, at Plymouth colony in 1621, for the general purpose of giving their heartfelt thanks that, somewhat aganst the odds, a small fraction of their number had survived the starvation, disease, horrible accidents, and hostile attacks to which colonists of previously unknown but already populated lands in those rustic days were prone at all times.
Of course, giving thanks for surviving another year with enough crops to face the winter has been a cause for celebration since the beginning of time and in probably all cultures, including those of many of the North American Indians, as well as the Spanish and English adventurers, soldiers, and would-be settlers that found their way to this continent in the early days. So it’s not surprising that some argument has arisen about who observed the first “official” Thanksgiving on American soil (implicitly meaning the first one involving Europeans). Partisans from my neck o’ the woods (including our Governor) have been making noise for some time that settlers in Virginia had a Thanksgiving feast even earlier.
“Historians have also recorded other ceremonies of thanks among European settlers in North America, including British colonists in Berkeley Plantation, Virginia. At this site near the Charles River in December of 1619, a group of British settlers led by Captain John Woodlief knelt in prayer and pledged ‘Thanksgiving’ to God for their healthy arrival after a long voyage across the Atlantic. This event has been acknowledged by some scholars and writers as the official first Thanksgiving among European settlers on record.”
This year, even President Bush himself visited the Berkley Plantation site of this earlier Thanksgiving event and took the opportunty to fan the flames of North-South rivalry over the issue (perhaps trying to win back some cred with the southern voters lost to his party’s downward spiral in recent years).
Be all that as it may, my interest here is not in the minutiae of who was first, but on how this holiday illustrates our American (and of course, everyone’s throughout the world) intimate dependence on the bounty of Nature. As Edward Winslow wrote in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakersof our plenty.”
“People tend to think of English food as bland, but, in fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for meats . . . Since the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians had no refrigeration in the seventeenth century, they tended to dry a lot of their foods to preserve them. They dried Indian corn, hams, fish, and herbs.”
There’s a reason for this — the spices over which great wars were waged, fortunes were made and lost, and nations rose and fell in the Old World, served not only the familiar purpose of making food tasty, but also of making it safer, particularly meat. In general, what we know as spices are the defensive chemical weapons that plants produce to battle the insects, microbes, and other enemies constantly trying to make a meal of them. When chosen carefully and used in moderation, these chemicals not only taste good but fulfill the same antimicrobial role for us that they did for the plants that fashioned them. It is not coincidence that strong spices are much more common in the cuisine of more tropical countries where meat spolis quickly than in, say, Norway. And there is strong circumstantial evidence that the spices most commonly used in cooking are those that have broad antimicrobial effectiveness.
Interestingly, the menu at that first Thanksgiving almost certainly did not include corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, ham, or even cranberries, all of which are considered staples of the feast in various parts of the USA today. Instead, the table was likely laden with Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster, and even perhaps . . . eagle.
Which brings me, circuitously, to how history has treated the noble creature that has come to serve as the symbol of Thanksgiving, but which some believe might have had a more illustrious career as our nation’s symbol. Alas, here we encounter another appealing but apocryphal piece of Americana. That great polymath scientist, inventor, keen observer of Nature (like many of the other Founding Fathers) and wit Ben Franklin did indeed extoll the turkey’s virtues relative to those of the bald eagle. But contrary to legend, this did not produce a debate about which of these birds should become the national symbol. The truth appears more prosaic — ol’ Ben discussed this idea only privately in a letter to his daughter:
“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country . . .
“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure [the eagle adorning the recently adopted Great Seal of the USA] is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
The rest, as they say, is history.