Thanksgiving is quickly approaching and soon we will be putting in our orders for a turkey in the size best suited to our oven and buying the fixings for our heirloom sweet potato recipe, chestnut stuffing, cranberries, corn and pumpkin pie. Why? Because these are the things we eat at Thanksgiving. When we think of the Thanksgiving table, we think of a cornucopia of luscious meats and vegetables like ham, corn and sweet potato. The table is decorated in autumn harvest colors of red, orange, brown, yellow and in the middle of it all sits the main attraction - the turkey! The table also features stuffing and cranberries in a sauce or jelly form to accompany the turkey. After dinner, the desserts come out and for many; this is the main event of the whole day (sorry turkey…) Rarely do we stop to think about why the traditions of the Thanksgiving feast exist today, but we most likely assume that the Pilgrims ate a similar dinner. Right?
Well, not exactly.
It was early in the fall of 1621 when the Pilgrims sat down to celebrate and give thanks for their successful harvest, so the autumnal colors of today’s Thanksgiving table are a nod to the season, and fit well in tradition. But what of the turkey, cranberries, corn and potatoes? After a little digging, one finds that many of the foods we find on our Thanksgiving table today, weren’t readily available back when the colonists and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the "First Thanksgiving in Plymouth."
Historical literature tells us that deer and wildfowl were probably consumed at the feast, but other wonderful meats, fish and shellfish like deer, goose, duck, lobster, eel, and cod were plentiful in the area at the time, so it would seem reasonable that they would make an appearance on the harvest table. If you know your maize history, you might know that corn was not edible in it’s “on the cob” form until relatively recently. It took many years of cultivating different varieties and crossbreeds to get the sweet, juicy and delicious corn we know and love today. More likely in the Pilgrims’ day, corn would have been processed to make cornbread. Pilgrims would have probably eaten other vegetables, like leeks, onions and salad greens and wild fruit like plums and dried berries, including cranberries. Feeling like giving for this Thanksgiving? Check out our Thanksgiving gifts.
So there were cranberries! However… you need sugar to make sweet cranberry sauce, and since sugar was such a rare indulgence in those days, cranberries would have taken on a whole new function at the Thanksgiving table. If cranberries were served at all, they would have been served without sugar, as a tart and almost savory accompaniment. It has been suggested too, that neither sweet nor white potatoes were available to the colonists back in 1621, so everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving carb never actually made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table (the horror!)
And what of the pumpkin pie? Surely the Pilgrims had that? Well, the conspicuous lack of butter and flour mean that it would have to be a crustless pie, (and quite frankly, who wants that?) Furthermore, it wouldn’t have been sweet like we’re used to because, as we mentioned earlier, sugar was rare luxury in those days. Finally… while people were using different types of stoves and ovens at the time, the pilgrims certainly didn’t have ovens like Gramma’s, which meant that the pie could not be baked to perfection, as we’re accustomed to today. The Pilgrims probably roasted their meats on spits over coals, and boiled vegetables, broths and stews on the hearth inside the house. As for the pie, we can easily imagine that cooking a crustless pie over an open fire would return some pretty interesting results. The best guess is that the entire dessert course of the Thanksgiving meal was introduced long after the Pilgrims were gone.
While we don’t know exactly what the Pilgrim’s feast looked like all of those years ago, we can safely say that they didn’t retire to the couch to watch football after gorging themselves on turkey and sweet potato pie. So this year, when you are preparing your Thanksgiving Table, feel at liberty to sneak some Maine lobster, and if you burn the sweet potatoes do not fear - just make some cornbread in their place. You can even forgo the cranberry sauce and still rest easy that you’re being historically accurate.
Now, keeping with the traditions that we have come to know and love, (whether historically accurate or not), here are some ideas for hosting Thanksgiving at your place this year, and for decorating your Thanksgiving table:
First, decide upon a formal sit down, informal family style or buffet style Thanksgiving feast. If your family and those who join you for Thanksgiving celebrate in different locations every year, send your invitations well in advance. Be sure you have secured the festivities at your place before you start to prepare the menu!
For the formal dinner, this is the time to get out the “good china” and crystal. Use gold-leaf glassware and decorations. Dried gourds and leaves that have been spray-painted in gold serve as perfect accents for the table. Use candles and a silver dinner service if you have one, and add elegance to each place setting with graceful napkin rings and linen napkins. Print out pretty place cards for each guest and decorate the table with autumn flowers and foliage in vases.
For the informal family style dinner, get creative with handmade accents. Autumn leaves look great strewn across the table and if you really want to get creative, take some newly fallen leaves that are still malleable and make delightful autumn votives from glass cylinder vases. Simply spray adhesive to the backs of the leaves and wrap them around the vases, toward the base. Leave the bottom, or stem to extend past the base and either trim this part or fold under and stick to the base. The family style feast is a popular choice for the style of the dishes usually served at Thanksgiving. The harvest table always looks great with the turkey in the middle, surrounded by big dishes of potatoes, corn, beans and salads.
If your table is on the smaller side, opt for the buffet style dinner and have people take their food from warmers lined up on the buffet or kitchen bench. Don’t worry - people will be more than happy to get up from their seats for seconds!
Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!