In the fall of 1621, the new European settlers sat down to their traditional harvest festival. Harvest festivals existed in Europe for centuries and the new transplants sat down to celebrate the successful corn harvest that would get them through the harsh New England winter. This three-day festival, which was attended by 90 members of the local Wampanoag tribe, featured a menu that is almost indistinguishable from today’s Thanksgiving feasts.
Since their settlement was near the water, an abundance of seafood, from oysters to lobster, filled the table. Venison, wild fowl and cornbread rounded out the offerings. Turkey was not specifically mentioned, though it could have come under the umbrella of “wild fowl” that was used to describe the event in a diary entry. As America grew and changed, so did the fare of the Thanksgiving table.
Many of the staples of our Thanksgiving feast originate from outside the United States. Those creamy mashed potatoes that taste so good drowned in butter were originally cultivated by the Bolivians and brought to Europe by the Spanish. Butter originates from somewhere in the Middle East or Asia. Yams are indigenous to Africa. Stuffing, or dressing as some call it, comes from African and Middle Eastern dishes that have been around for centuries. Butternut squash is a distinctly Native American dish as is anything having to do with corn. And that apple pie, the dish that conjures up the phrase “As American as ...,” was first made in England. There is some disagreement as to how turkey became the protein of choice. Theories vary from a book by Sarah Hale, who successfully lobbied President Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, in which she described what she thought was a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Others credit Charles Dickens’ Scrooge ordering turkey as penance for his stingy behavior in the wildly popular novella “A Christmas Carol” for the popularity of the meat.
My family, like millions of other families, made food that was passed down from older generations. My family served sauerkraut, which was an homage to our German roots. In fact, it took me many years to figure out that sauerkraut was not an offering at any of my friends’ feasts. What we like to think of as a traditional American feast is actually an international reflection of who we are as a people. The food we eat comes from cultures that voluntarily and involuntarily came to America. The things we eat come from both the exploration and exploitation of global cultures. Without even thinking about it we consume and celebrate hundreds, even thousands, of years of human traditions from all over the world.
These past few years we have been embroiled in a battle over who belongs here and who does not. Along with that is a whitewashing of our past, which does nothing but breed resentment and prohibits all of us from moving forward as a country. Without our distinctly American history, including the extremely brutal parts of it, along with the hope that draws so many people here, we would not have the cultural traditions we do. It’s not a reflection of one group of people that came here, but all of them. No matter how we came here, or will come here, there is always plenty of room at the table.
Shannon Green writes from Frederick.