by Jennifer Pustz
These three staples are the stars of many a Turkey-day menu, symbols of a celebration shared by Native Americans and the English in the early years of the Plymouth colony. But were these foods at the “first feast?” How have these headliners stood the test of time? Friedman student and historian Jennifer Pustz gives us the scoop.
The air is crisp and the leaves are turning red, orange, and gold. Pumpkin is the flavor featured in nearly every bakery and coffee shop. It is fall in New England. In the midst of midterms and heavy workloads, many of us look forward to Thanksgiving break for a brief respite filled with friends, family, and Turkey-day comfort food. As we know, many holidays are centered on food-related traditions, but no holiday is more deeply rooted in specific foods than Thanksgiving. Turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie are the headliners of the traditional feast and evidence of their long connection to the Thanksgiving celebration may be found in the very best history books—cookbooks.
The fact that bountiful tables and cornucopias have become symbolic of Thanksgiving is somewhat ironic given challenges that English colonists faced during their early years in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Half of the first settlers to arrive on the Mayflower in November 1620 died during their first winter in the colony. Lack of shelter, disease (in some cases, like scurvy, due to malnutrition), and hunger took a heavy toll. The indigenous people of New England had long managed periods of bounty and want by moving camps frequently with the seasons. The English brought none of these skills and arrived after the growing season was over in September/October. Their situation slowly improved, due in part to contact with Native Americans who taught the English how to grow corn, a grain they may have known but not nearly as well as wheat. The English brought seeds for wheat, rye, and peas with them, but their early attempts to grow familiar crops in an unfamiliar place were largely unsuccessful. But a future successful harvest would be worthy of celebration.
The turkey has long served as the symbol of the Thanksgiving feast. Although the story of the first Thanksgiving is a mélange of myth and conjecture, the turkey may have actually been part of the celebration shared by Native Americans and the English in the early years of the colony. In his history of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford mentions the plentiful population of wild turkeys. By the end of the eighteenth century, a recipe for stuffed turkey served with cranberry sauce could be found in the earliest cookbook written by an American for an audience of fellow countrywomen using ingredients that could be procured in this country. In American Cookery, first published in 1796, Amelia Simmons included the following instructions for stuffing and roasting a turkey:
“Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound of butter, one quarter of a Pound of salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient) fill the bird and sew up. . . . hand down to a steady fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, and put one pound of a butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles, or celery.”
The cranberry was a part of the native Wampanoag People’s diet for centuries before the English arrived. The colonists were familiar with a European variety and used it in the aforementioned sauce, and also filled pastries with stewed, strained, and sweetened cranberries. In addition to being a fruit that kept well, it had the nutritional benefit of preventing scurvy.
Traditional Thanksgiving foods remind us of the seasonality of foodways in an era before reliable refrigeration. It is unclear exactly when the first harvest celebration that became known as the modern Thanksgiving holiday took place, but it is believed to have been between the months of September and November. Therefore, vegetables harvested in the fall—pumpkins and other squash, potatoes, and other root vegetables—became an important part of the holiday feast. Amelia Simmons included two recipes for pumpkin pie in American Cookery. Of the two recipes, the simplest instructed readers to combine “One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.” In fact, pies of all types—sweet and savory—were a regular part of early American meals, not just on special occasions as they are more likely to be today.
For many modern Americans, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner comes the next day, when they turn leftover turkey into sandwiches, hash, soup, casseroles, and more. In 1877, a popular cookbook called Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping offered recommendations for leftovers that might be considered tasty even today:
“After Thanksgiving Dinner a most excellent hash may be made thus: Pick meat off of turkey bones, shred it in small bits, add dressing and pieces of light biscuit cut up fine, mix together and put into dripping pan, pour over any gravy that was left, add water to thoroughly moisten but not enough to make it sloppy, place in a hot oven for twenty minutes, and, when eaten, all will agree that the turkey was better this time than it was at first.”
However you celebrate your Thanksgiving, be it with an organic turkey or a Tofurky roll, with or without cranberries and pumpkin pie, may it be filled with joy and gratitude.
The recipe quoted here (and many more) may be found on the website of Michigan State University’s Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks. If you would like to learn more about Thanksgiving’s origins and food history, check out J.W. Baker and Peter J. Gomes, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2010), which is available as an e-book from the Tufts library. And, if you’d like to see where history was made, a visit to Plimoth Plantation—an easy day trip from Boston—provides the perspectives of the English colonists and the Wampanoag People: https://www.plimoth.org/
Jennifer Pustz is a first-year NICBC and MPH dual-degree student. Prior to starting at Friedman, she worked for ten years as the museum historian for Historic New England, the nation’s oldest regional heritage organization, and prior to that as historian for Brucemore, a historic house museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her research has focused on the stories of enslaved and free domestic servants from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. She was also a contributor to Historic New England’s publication, America’s Kitchens (2009), a history of the domestic kitchen that cultivated a love of food history. In her new career, Jennifer hopes to weave the lessons of the past into the future of healthy eating behaviors, interventions, and policy.