James E. McWilliams: The Pilgrims Gave Thanks but Not for the Menu

Roundup: Talking About History

[James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of "A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America."]

...The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist - the colonial minister Charles Woodmason called it "exceedingly filthy and most execrable." Our comfort food, in short, was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence.

Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food - much less foods native to North America. Thanksgiving celebrations occurred irregularly at best after 1621 (the year of the supposed first Thanksgiving) and colonists observed them as strictly religious events (conceivably by fasting).

It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values. Sarah Josepha Hale and her fellow Martha Stewarts of the day implored families to "sit down together at the feast of fat things" and raise a toast to the Thanksgiving holiday. When Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the cornucopia-inspired myth was, as a result of these literary efforts, in full bloom.

This secular transition laid the foundation for families to adopt what had become familiar American foods as the holiday's bountiful centerpiece. Popular as they might have been in 19th-century America, however, the earthy victuals that Thanksgiving revisionists arranged on the Pilgrims' fictional table were foods that Pilgrims and their descendants would have rather avoided.

The reason is fairly simple. Hale and her fellow writers seem to have forgotten that their Puritan forebears migrated to New England with strict notions about food production and preparation. Proper notions of English husbandry generally demanded that flesh be domesticated, grain neatly planted and fruit and vegetables cultivated in gardens and orchards.

Given these expectations, English migrants recoiled upon discovering that the native inhabitants hunted their game, grew their grain haphazardly and foraged for fruit and vegetables. Squash, corn, turkey and ripe cranberries might have tasted perfectly fine to the English settlers. But that was beside the point. What really mattered was that the English deemed the native manner of acquiring these goods nothing short of barbaric. Indeed, the colonists saw it as the essence of savagery. ...

Read entire article at NYT

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Charles Lee Jackson - 11/24/2006

http://volokh.com/posts/1164302863.shtml for a helpful corrective to the above.