How to Party Like It’s 1621

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By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

According to American tradition, Thanksgiving began as a fall meal shared by English colonists and Native Americans. Historical records on the event are thin, but historians have been able to paint a relatively vivid picture of what has developed into our modern Thanksgiving Day.

First off, it may come as quite a surprise to learn that the first Thanksgiving feast in America was hosted by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541, 79 years before the Pilgrim’s harvest feast. As Coronado’s 1,500 troops set up camp in northern Texas, the company’s padre called for a “feast of prayer and thanksgiving.”

Another Texas feast of Thanksgiving occurred in 1598. A wealthy Spaniard was granted land in Southwest Texas. He chose to take his host of 500 men, women, and children straight across the Chihuahua desert to get there. Similar to the Pilgrims, they barely survived the journey. Upon arrival and after recuperating for ten days, the grateful Spaniard ordered a feast of thanksgiving “the like of which we had never enjoyed before,” as one man recorded in his journal.

As to the first thanksgiving feast shared with Native Americans, different claims have been made. Some historians say the Spanish founders of St. Augustine, Florida, shared a memorable meal with the Timucuan tribe in 1565. Others say that in 1607, colonists at Fort St. George in Maine gathered for an autumn feast with the Abenaki people.

In 1621, the Pilgrims, who arrived a year earlier and almost died out, held their famous feast. Actual historical evidence is lacking, but a letter from colonist Edward Winslow dated December 11, 1621, describes the event, including the following reference.

…our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more 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 … 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…

This famous celebration that lasted almost a week (before the invention of elastic waistbands) is what 19th-century New Englanders would later tout as the beginning of modern Thanksgiving. After its early colonial origin, the next notable public feasts of Thanksgiving are recorded during the American Revolution. The next significant moment in our national holiday came in the early 1800s when Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Gody’s Lady’s Book, began her long campaign of calling for a National Day of Thanksgiving.

In 1863, President Lincoln responded to the persistent Hale’s cry and proclaimed, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…”

As far as what was eaten at that famous 1621 meal, well, nobody thought to save a menu from the event. Winslow’s letter does mention enough fowl to feed the group for almost a week, and Turkeys were abundant at the time. So, the traditional Thanksgiving bird quite probably appeared at the table along with duck, goose, and swan (Yes, swan was a popular game bird at the time, we’re told). Meat was in no short supply. The Wampanoag people brought five deer to the banquet. Seafood quite possibly was included in the meal since Winslow mentions its abundance in the area.

With no flour to make bread for bread stuffing, the roasted birds were most likely filled with herbs, onions, or nuts to enhance the flavor. Other side dishes would most likely have included onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and carrots. Winslow tells us in his letter that the corn harvest was plentiful. So, there’s that. But the corn would not have been eaten whole kernel as we do today. The kernels would have been removed from the cob and ground into a meal, which was then boiled into a mush and sometimes sweetened with molasses when you’re lucky. Wild indigenous berries would have been available, but not in the form of the sauces and jams we enjoy with our Thanksgiving meals. Sugar had run out for the Pilgrims by then. Some wild root vegetables such as turnips and yams were available, but potatoes to mash had not yet made their way to the New World.

Pumpkins and squash are native to New England, but the colonists lacked the butter, flour, and sugar to make a pie crust. Which begs the question, why have Thanksgiving at all if you can’t have pumpkin (punkin’?) pie? But it’s immaterial. They had not yet built an oven for baking—supply chain issues. Now, we don’t know if the Pilgrims did this, but some historical records tell of settlers hollowing out a pumpkin and filling it with milk, honey, and spices. The aromatic gourd would then be placed on hot coals to make a custard. Oh, to loosen your belt and eat a pumpkin full of custard with no knowledge of cholesterol or heart disease.

According to Winslow, some ninety Wampanoag attended the festivity, which would have outnumbered the surviving colonists by about two to one.

And that’s how to party like it’s 1621.

However you celebrate it, Happy Thanksgiving.

Sources:

https://www.history.com/news/thanksgiving-timeline

https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/first-thanksgiving-meal

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

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