The countdown has begun. The plans are being discussed. The larders (that means cupboards and refrigerators for those of you who prefer modern speech) are being filled and filled and filled.
It’s the Day to Be Thankful. Or (more commonly) the Day to Get Stuffed Till You Hurt. Add a pinch of the usual dissonances that happen when family (sorry, Family) must gather from all their own homes to the Gathering Place of Holiday and what you have is Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving Day used to be the start of the Holiday Season. It was the date on which one could expect to have to start worrying about gifts, money, food, people, other people, parties, diets, party clothes, decorations, credit card debt, wrapping paper, ribbons and tape, red tape, lines at the stores, malls with parking lots the size of small cities, office gatherings filled with charming lechery from the least charming people who’d slugged down a bit too much punch (make that wine – punch is ‘out’), plans for alliances and non-alliances, health club memberships for the New Year when one would get Skinny and Gorgeous, and what stuffing would be served and with what on what day. Ham, Turkey, Roast Beef. We need large ones. We need Heirloom ones. (I always think of the turkey-pluckers on these days, their fingers chilled as those pinfeathers continue to stick even after the boiling water dipping machine and the tossing around like a whirlwind feather-removing machine have done their industrial jobs yet not well enough, not well enough for whatever-price per pound these babies are costing their investor-eaters).
We need Brussel Sprouts, and God Only Knows Why.
Thanksgiving is not the start of the holiday season anymore – Halloween holds that place of honor as the plans grow more startlingly consumptive (yes, two meanings to that word!) and well-caramelized.
We have a lot to be thankful for. But let’s get real. Are we really celebrating an American Traditional Thanksgiving at our tables with this meal of choice and habit? Or . . . is it all a little trick played on us?
Could it be that a writer invented this holiday as we know it and celebrate it, and that somehow we have simply forgotten the real way of the holiday in an excess of the sort of jolly jingo-istic sentiment that seems to grab the masses by the throat heart, and with the soft prettiness of it all manages to serve up a paint-the-kitten-on-velvet-by-numbers kit for dinner?
One does like things to be nice nice. Nice nice is so nice.
Lets’ try this on for size, instead – for our Thanksgiving dinner:
First, wild turkey was never mentioned in Winslow’s account. It is probable that the large amounts of “fowl” brought back by four hunters were seasonal waterfowl such as duck or geese.
And if cranberries were served, they would have been used for their tartness or color, not the sweet sauce or relish so common today. In fact, it would be 50 more years before berries were boiled with sugar and used as an accompaniment to meat.
Potatoes weren’t part of the feast, either. Neither the sweet potato nor the white potato was yet available to colonists.
The presence of pumpkin pie appears to be a myth, too. The group may have eaten pumpkins and other squashes native to New England, but it is unlikely that they had the ingredients for pie crust – butter and wheat flour. Even if they had possessed butter and flour, the colonists hadn’t yet built an oven for baking.
“While we have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available in 1621, just what was served is a tougher nut to crack,” Ms. Curtin says.
A couple of guesses can be made from other passages in Winslow’s correspondence about the general diet at the time: lobsters, mussels, “sallet herbs,” white and red grapes, black and red plums, and flint corn.
That makes for a different sort of table, a bit.
Then how did this reality of a holiday which-is-not actually occur?
Until the early 1800s, Thanksgiving was considered to be a regional holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection.
But the 19th century had its own Martha Stewart, and it didn’t take her long to turn New England fasting into national feasting. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, stumbled upon Winslow’s passage and refused to let the historic day fade from the minds – or tables – of Americans. This established trendsetter filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving.
It was also about this time – in 1854, to be exact – that Bradford’s history book of Plymouth Plantation resurfaced. The book increased interest in the Pilgrims, and Mrs. Hale and others latched onto the fact he mentioned that the colonists had killed wild turkeys during the autumn.
In her magazine Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies – all the foods that today’s holiday meals are likely to contain.
In the process, she created holiday “traditions” that share few similarities with the original feast in 1621.
In 1858, Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote: “Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation, when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the length of the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”
Five years later, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
“[Hale's] depiction is wrong much more often than it’s right,” says Nancy Brennan, president of Plimoth Plantation.
So. Is it Turkey Day or is it not? I’d say it definitely is Turkey Day in some ways. In more ways than one.
In the final analysis one must gather one’s turkeys where they may, as they batten the hatches momentarily against the onslaught of the rest of the ravaging hoolidays holidays to come along on the rampage in short shrift.
One of my favorite questions in the whole wide world is raised by all this. The question is: What is real?
When it looks really pretty and nice, it’s worth poking at to be sure it is true. Or even real.
Enjoy your bird no matter the feather! Even if you are quietly thankful, and choose to not stuff yourself or any bird, fish or fowl whatsoever. Eat what you like, for the day belongs to you – not to some dead editor of a ladies magazine who lived a long time ago.
And if the bird pecks you, peck right back. It’s the holiday season, after all. And listen up, all you groaning-table and screaming football fans:
‘fasting and quiet reflection’
appears to be quite American after all.
Source of quoted material: The First Thanksgiving CS Monitor November 2002
From a different Thanksgiving day: