Talking turkey about the REAL 1st Thanksgiving

Roundup: Talking About History

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.

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.

Recipe for a myth

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....

Read entire article at Chicago Tribune

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