Thanksgiving is one of those words you can smell. You can almost whiff the rich umami aromas swirling around the family kitchen. It’s easy to imagine the steamed-up windows and the sound of football coming from the television. Thanksgiving, as we celebrate it today, seems to make any home cozier, more inviting and warm, even if you live in Florida. The perfect setting for a turkey-induced snooze amongst friends and family.
A contemporary Thanksgiving spread usually consists of an irresistible roasted turkey surrounded by all the trimmings. There are mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and brussel sprouts, a heaping mound of turkey stuffing and of course, something sweet for dessert. More often than not, it's going to be a big, old, flaky pumpkin pie.
For the cook, it's a lot of work, and it often starts the day before the big dinner. Getting the bird trimmed can be a delicate and tedious process, especially if you're expecting many guests. A big bird requires a second send of hands to stuff. Timing has to be just right, so we can get everything in the oven at the right temperature, and allow the star of the show to rest just a little after roasting in the oven all day. Finally, when all the guests are unbuckling their belts in the living room, someone has to do the dishes. When all is said and done, a good Thanksgiving dinner is enough to keep a person busy for a couple of days. That's a lot of work.
Of course, it's nowhere near the amount of labor that went into the first Thanksgiving. Over the years, the technological advancements in our civilization have gradually made this epic meal easier and easier. If you're dreading the coming workload this season of thanks, perhaps a look back at the first will make you feel a little bit better.
What happened at the first Thanksgiving?
The first Thanksgiving came after the inaugural harvest following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth. In 1621, sometime in November, it was their first bounty after laboring over their fields and crops all year. Considering the founding of John Deere was still centuries away, raising all those crops had to be done by hand. The Pilgrims worked closely with the Wampanoag to get those crops going. When it came time to harvest and reap the rewards of all that hard labor and cooperation, it seemed only fitting to celebrate. A feast was thrown for the Pilgrims and the Native People alike, everyone bringing their offerings to add to the spread. Guests became gluttons for an estimated three days while the leftovers went on to feed the colonists for weeks.
What was eaten on the first Thanksgiving?
- Other Fowl
While turkey was likely present at this feast, the difference then is that the Pilgrims had to hunt the bird. The single, lasting account of the first Thanksgiving details how a hunting party went "on fowling". The party may have brought back all sorts of fowl, including geese and ducks.
Today, of course, with the commercialization of raising livestock, all we have to do is get to the supermarket and pick out the plumpest bird we can find. With the introduction of refrigeration and specialized meat handling equipment, we don't have to do any of the dirty work anymore. Unlike us, after hunting their fowl, the Pilgrims would have had to slaughter, pluck and clean the bird themselves.
Venison also made its way into the first Thanksgiving spread, as an offering from the colonist's Wampanoag guests.
All the meats at the first Thanksgiving would have been roasted on a spit over an open fire, of course. There were no convection ovens or rotisseries back then.
Something we don't often see on our dinner tables at Thanksgiving anymore is seafood, but it was likely there in 1621. These settlers were in New England, known for its abundance of shellfish and seafood. The first celebration of Thanksgiving probably had plenty of shellfish, particularly mussels, clams, and oysters. Lobster and different species of fish most likely made it to the table, as well.
All of this seafood had to be collected and cleaned by hand. There were no fishing boats, no specialized seafood cleaning machinery like descalers or deshellers. Flash freezing was also not possible back then, and so the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag alike had to fetch their fresh seafood from the ocean and clean it up themselves. As with our turkey, nowadays we just show up to the grocery store with a reusable bag and the patience to find a fresh fillet.
One of the more interesting ways in which Thanksgiving has changed with the introduction of new technology is the difference in the fruits and vegetables we eat. In 1621, Pilgrims ate many of the same fruits and vegetables we do now, but what some of them looked and tasted like was much different. Take corn, for example. In colonial times, the most common and abundant sort of corn was far less sweet and juicy than what we're used to now. The settlers would likely not have eaten anything like corn on the cob. Instead, they ground down the corn kernels in different ways to produce porridge, grits, bread, hominy and mush.
Our corn is different today thanks to our growing understanding of genetics and how we can manipulate them. Selective breeding certainly existed in the 1600s, but it had nowhere near the impact on the look and taste of our food as it does now.
Corn also would have been on the table in its various forms where we might, today, put potatoes. In 1621, the potato was brand new to the settlers. It would not have been a staple of their diet yet and likely would not have been seen at the first Thanksgiving.
Also missing from the first Thanksgiving spread would have been cranberries. While the little red fruits were found all over New England, they were too tart to eat without sugar and sugar, in 1621, was not in abundant supply.
Butter is something else that would have been in limited supply. The Mayflower had barrels of it for the settlers in the new world, but it ran out quick. Without butter or sugar, pie wouldn't have been on the menu. Instead, the Pilgrims used their pumpkins to fill with gooey custards and roast over hot coals.
Whatever fruits and vegetables made it to that first feast of thanks were there due in part to the help from the Wampanoag people. Together with the Pilgrims, they grew it all themselves. Fields of corn and wheat, onions, spinach, cabbage and carrots were all worked and harvested by hand. In our time, agriculture has become a booming commercial phenomenon. Not only do our fruits and vegetables arrive at our dinner table without us so much as touching a shovel, sometimes it even comes pre-washed.
Who was at the first Thanksgiving?
- Just four women
Sadly, 78% of all the women who began the voyage on the Mayflower perished before the first Thanksgiving. That meant that men did most of the work done for this feast. Our life expectancy has changed drastically since colonial times with the introduction of sanitation and medical research, which makes our contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations much more diverse. There are more women and older people around to take part in it these days. In 1621, the crowd was very young and very male.
The pilgrims were also greatly outnumbered by the Wampanoag people. Estimates suggest that there were twice as many Native Americans at the feast than settlers.
How long was the first Thanksgiving?
When the settlers and the Wampanoag sat down to give thanks for the bountiful harvest in 1621, it was a long, drawn-out event. It spanned three days, but preparations began weeks in advance. Harvesting and hunting, cleaning and dressing, it was a lot more labour than we put into our Thanksgiving feast now. We mustn't forget that the pilgrims had to do it all with little to no escape from the harsh elements of November in New England.
Technology has changed almost everything about Thanksgiving. Agriculture, modern livestock raising, industrialization and commercialization has made it much easier for us to obtain the ingredients we need. Our understanding of genetics makes those ingredients more delicious and longer-lasting. Sanitation and medical advancements have made it easier for more of us to live through more Thanksgivings in our lifetimes. Technology in the kitchen has made it possible for us to cook an entire bird inside the house and save the leftovers. So much about this beloved American holiday has changed since that first Thanksgiving in 1621, but one thing remains the same. Thanksgiving is still about celebrating gratitude.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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