Chicago Tribune (MCT)
NEW YORK — One autumn day in 1621, newly arrived Pilgrims joined native Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts' Plymouth Colony to share a harvest meal of thanksgiving, including roast turkey, pumpkin pie and the Indian-supplied delicacy, popcorn. From kindergartners acting in their first pageant to grandparents presiding over the family feast, most Americans know the story of Thanksgiving cold. And most of them would be wrong.
It's time to talk turkey about Thanksgiving.
President George W. Bush joins Admiral William J. Fallon, right, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and other military personnel during a breakfast Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006, at the Officers Club at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii. White House photo by Eric Draper
While long immortalized in painting, poetry and song — and annually reinforced by chocolate turkeys, buckle-hatted Garfields on Hallmark cards and school re-enactments of the blessed banquet — the "First Thanksgiving" that gave rise to America's holiday tradition never occurred, at least not in the way most of us picture and understand it.
There is no historical link between the harvest meal in 1621 and America's Thanksgiving narrative. It is, quite simply, a "myth," albeit a cherished one, according to no less authority than the historians at Plymouth's Plimouth Plantation, a non-profit educational institution and living museum that researches and replicates life in the early years of the colony. Although there are deep historical dimensions to the myth, some of the shallower aspects concerning cuisine may be among the more shocking to Americans.
Brace yourself. For starters, there is no evidence that turkey was on a menu that more likely starred venison, ducks, geese and shellfish. There might have been stewed pumpkin, but certainly no pumpkin pie in the then almost certainly ovenless Plymouth Colony. Cranberry sauce was as unknown to the colonists and the Indians, and neither yams nor white potatoes were grown yet in the New World. There is nothing to suggest the Native Americans popped corn and bestowed it on their colonizers. And there likely was no groaning board around which diners gathered.
"Did they even have a table? Maybe," said Elizabeth Pleck, a historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has written extensively on the history of Thanksgiving.
The modern Thanksgiving tradition is rooted in a 165-year-old historical misunderstanding that goes far beyond the question of whether turkey was served. There was no connection made between Pilgrims and Thanksgiving until 1841, when Alexander Young published a book in Boston containing a letter written by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth Colony leaders, on Dec. 11, 1621.
The letter includes one paragraph in which Winslow described a three-day harvest celebration attended by the 50 colonists and some 90 Indians.
On his own, Young decided to add an asterisk, a fateful footnote describing the event as "the first Thanksgiving" and dragging in the unmentioned turkey by stating "they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison." In essence, Young wrongly conflated the English tradition of a secular harvest festival with the very specific Puritan tradition of observing holy days of Thanksgiving, which occurred primarily in church and only when occasions warranted.
In fact, Thanksgiving, arguably America's most inclusive and cherished day of family observance, wasn't a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed it so in 1863. And that primarily was the result of a 17-year campaign by magazine editor Sara Josepha Hale, who initially thought such a holiday might avert the Civil War and subsequently hoped it would help heal the nation's wounds.
But it all started with Young's faulty footnote. "So, basically, that asterisk sets the myth in motion," said Jennifer Monac, public-relations manager for Plimouth Plantation. "That's all it was, a paragraph in a book, and it's turned into America's most beloved holiday."
"To the English of Plymouth Plantation, what is now referred to as the `First Thanksgiving' was neither a `first' nor a `thanksgiving,'" as Kathleen Curtin, Plimouth Plantation food historian, states bluntly in her 2005 book, "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie." If there was, indeed, a "First Thanksgiving" in Plymouth Colony, it came in 1623, when the colonists, short on food, thanked God for the end of a drought and the news that a supply ship was on its way.
Nonetheless, the wrong story not only stuck but became the history taught to generations of immigrant children to help them and their parents identify with the immigrant history of their new country.
Andrew Smith, culinary historian and author of the just-published "The Turkey: An American Story," said he doubted all Americans cleave to the myth.
"That's probably exaggerated. It's probably 99.9 percent," he said. "It's a fun story, and people ... tell it over and over again. And it will be told over and over again this Thanksgiving."
Even questioning it can be dicey, he said. "We need a good origin myth. Every country has one ... but if you challenge it, as I did, it's considered un-American."
The truth is hardly a secret, Smith pointed out. The historians at the Plimouth Plantation, among many others, have published what is known about the true origins of Thanksgiving in scholarly journals, he said, "but nobody paid any attention to it."
They still don't, according to Plimouth's Monac.
"We tell (the true story) every year and we tell it often on widely seen publications and media. Like `Good Morning America' is coming here early next week ... but it's amazing what the common misperceptions are."
Among those, she noted, is the fact that Pilgrims didn't wear buckles on their hats and shoes because "there weren't any buckles until the 1630s."
There are more, many stemming from the fact that the Victorians who promulgated the Pilgrim connection tended to imagine them as Victorians. Thus the concept that Pilgrims dressed austerely in black and white, when in fact they often wore earth tones, scarlet and yellow, according to Francis Bremer, chairman of the history department at Pennsylvania's Millersville University.
And Bremer dismisses the idea that Pilgrims were priggish about alcohol and sex.
"Their tradition coming from England was to drink beers, ales, stouts and other home-brewed beverages," he said. "They would have continued that." As for sex, between a married couple it was encouraged and not just for procreation, Bremer said.
He added, "It doesn't really matter if they were eating turkey, what really mattered is they came together as a community and welcomed people from another society. ... And that element ...of welcoming the Native Americans, who had a very different culture, is something I think we ought to spend more time thinking about."
In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England that describes the meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians:
"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 partakers of our plenty."
But when the letter was published in 1841 by Alexander Young, he added a footnote saying the event was "the first thanksgiving ... and they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison."
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.