We all grew up with an image of the first Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In our schoolbooks it looked very much like what most of us will sit down to next week: turkey, potatoes, cranberries, bread, pie. But it wasn’t like that at all. A letter written by Edward Winslow to a friend back in England described the feast of 1621.
Plymouth Colony’s Governor Bradford sent men out to hunt wildfowl, most likely goose and duck. The Wampanoag Indians brought venison. Fish may have been included. While turkeys were also plentiful in New England in the 1620s, they were difficult to catch and the meat was tough and lean, so probably not included. If the birds were stuffed it would have been with onions and herbs. Cranberries were native to New England at the time and maple sugar would have sweetened the sauce. Pumpkins were also available, but there was no flour so there would have been no pie.
So where did the Thanksgiving feast ideal get its start? Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, a popular mid-19th century women’s magazine, wanted to create an American tradition that would bring people together under the rural Protestant foundations that built our nation. She first described the Thanksgiving meal in her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England. “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” Her ideal feast also included “a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton…innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables…a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies of every description known in Yankee land.”
A feast table overflowing with abundance was the standard Hale upheld for the successful housewife within the ideal home. Every November her editorials in Godey’s included tips and recipes for the annual Thanksgiving feast. When the nation was divided by Civil War, she wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln petitioning him to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. On October 3, 1863 President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be the official “day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”
Over the years, the traditions have been modified to accommodate changes in food delivery and preparation. In 1912, cranberries, once too fragile to transport, were processed and canned by the United Cape Cod Cranberry Company under the name Ocean Spray Preserving Company, making them available nationwide and year round. In the mid-1900s pre-packaged stuffing mixes made the cooking of the perfect turkey dressing fast and easy for even the most challenged cook. In 1955, the Campbell’s Soup Company published the first green bean casserole recipe. Canned pureed pumpkin, along with your assorted canned fruit pie fillings, make pies much less time consuming. Now you can even buy pre-made crusts that you merely unroll and lay in the pie plate. Whipped cream can be bought in either the dairy or freezer section.
While how we prepare our Thanksgiving feast has changed over the years, we can thank Sarah Josepha Buell Hale for the blueprint of this ideal family tradition. We can also blame her at the end of the day after we have eaten far too much food. Unfortunately, our sedentary life styles have not kept pace with the evolutions of this celebratory meal.
* Research taken from the Saturday Evening Post, The Invention of Thanksgiving by Susan Evans, November/December 2016.