Picture the traditional Thanksgiving dinner: a festive table, a loving family, glowing candles and the finest china used only on special occasions. And the centerpiece of the festive meal: the turkey, golden brown, with stuffing and gravy on the side, awaiting the carving knife and wetting the appetites of all those present. This scene, however, is not from history, but it emerges from a desire to remake history into our own vision.
No Thanksgiving Turkey!
Wild turkeys, as they would have been encountered in New England nearly four centuries ago certainly did not resemble the overstuffed fowl, cultivated for our dinner table, that we have come to recognize, even by silhouette. Tough, resourceful, able to fly and hard to catch, turkeys were not the first choice of either Native Americans or early colonial hunters. This creature was so tenacious that none other than Benjamin Franklin suggested it be revered as our national symbol. Of course, the Bald Eagle ultimately won the honor by a feather.
So if turkey was not the main course at the first harvest festival, which we have adopted through time, as the model for Thanksgiving Dinner, then what was served?
The Original Thanksgiving Dinner
The answer lies in some of the documents of the time. Edward Winslow”s account details that “they went out and killed five deer” and mentions that “our governor sent four men on fowling” and that “they four, in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” While it is possible that turkeys may have been killed, it is more likely that ducks or geese were the primary targets.
In addition, the crops grown by both settler and Native American would have graced that early thanksgiving dinner. Corn, squash, potatoes, yams, even wheat to make bread were, in all probability, shared and enjoyed. Ironically, however, it is not likely that cranberries were evident. Since they grew in bogs and were often inaccessible, gathering them may have been more effort that it was worth. In an even greater piece of irony, New England has become one of the principal locations for commercial farming of this tart, tough-skinned fruit.
Today there is such a large variety of food to choose from that a Thanksgiving Dinner can feature almost any main course. True, the traditional turkey is still the meat of choice, yet goose, duck, ham, even some of the sea”s harvests can be used. In place of sweet potatoes, peas, rice dishes, greens, and even more exotic vegetables all make their way to this celebration of Thanksgiving and harvest.
The key to a Thanksgiving menu is to choose foods that will represent the idea of giving thanks for a good year, a harvesting of good fortune, and the sharing of the bounty of your efforts with friends and family. In today”s world, the only limit on preparing a Thanksgiving Dinner is an individual”s imagination and creativity.