Thanksgiving: A Misunderstood History

by Sam Jones

The holiday that many of us are looking forward to this month is actually based on a complicated history of conflict and controversy. As disease threatened the very existence of Native American tribes across New England, the Mayflower pilgrims were dying of starvation. Sam Jones recounts how the social history of Thanksgiving saved some and devastated others in order to give celebrators a new perspective on tradition.

As a kid, I was always taught that Thanksgiving is an American tradition based on a feast held a long time ago between the Native Americans and my European ancestors. As the tale goes, the pilgrims welcomed the Native Americans to their celebratory harvest feast and the two communities lived harmoniously for years. I was also taught that the Native Americans felt, or should have felt, grateful for the pilgrims’ generosity and help. Even today, this narrative is still presented in schools and households from the point of view of the pilgrims, portraying the Native Americans as dependent and voiceless. However, a closer look at the history of the first Thanksgiving reveals that the opposite may have been true—the European settlers could not have survived without the Wampanoag tribe of modern-day Massachusetts.

Photo: Sam Jones

The first Europeans to arrive on the eastern shores of what is now the United States of America were not the pilgrims who settled Plymouth in 1620. Europeans from France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Italy had all been travelling and trading along the eastern coast for over a century prior to colonization. Many of these travelers were trading more than just steel and jewelry. In fact, some travelers killed and captured indigenous people to sell in the slave trade.

One Native American captured by the Englishman Thomas Hunt was a young Wampanoag named Tisquantum. Historical records do not indicate how Tisquantum evaded slavery in Spain, but he managed to learn English on is journey back to Cape Cod. Upon his return, however, the thriving Native American community he had been taken from several years before was nothing more than a burial ground extending north and south along the entire coast of New England.

Photo: Sam Jones

Along with their goods, the European traders had brought various diseases, which decimated tribes along the coastline throughout the 1500s and early 1600s—90% of the region’s indigenous population died between 1616 and 1619 alone. The Wampanoag tribe was one such group that was considerably weakened by disease—their numbers were reduced from 20,000 to 1,000. When Tisquantum finally returned to what was left of his tribe, he was met with suspicion and treated as a servant to his own people.

The pilgrims arrived shortly after Tisquantum’s reunion with the Wampanoag, but nearly half of them died during their first winter in New England. Without food or a proper shelter, the pilgrims resorted to ransacking the graves and storehouses of the Native American tribes that had lived on Cape Cod prior to being wiped out by disease. In the spring of 1621, the pilgrims first interacted with the Wampanoag tribe with the help of Tisquantum who was able to use his English language skills to translate. An unprecedented treaty-like partnership was formulated between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe because both parties viewed cooperation as mutually beneficial for several reasons.

The weakened Wampanoag tribe needed to bolster its strength and resilience to defend against a rival tribe known as the Narraganset, which remained untouched by the spreading disease. The Wampanoag tribe strategically garnered a trading partnership with the pilgrims as a means for their tribe to exert power in the region as middlemen between the Europeans and other tribes as well as to deter the Narraganset from implementing an attack.

In the fall of 1621, the pilgrims and 90 men from the Wampanoag tribe gathered for a feast to celebrate their first successful harvest. This occasion is now commonly referred to as the first thanksgiving. The partnership between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims continued in a similar fashion for the next 50 years. During that time, several ships arrived in Plymouth to settle the new colony. While the pilgrims’ numbers and territory exponentially increased, the Native American tribes throughout the region dwindled as death and disease remained rampant. In 1675 one of the sons of the Wampanoag leader, fed up with the colonists’ laws and encroaching settlements, launched an attack against the colonists. In the end, the European settlers won at the cost of over 5,000 lives. Not only was their manpower and weaponry far superior, but the diseases they brought from their homeland certainly played an active role in weakening the Native American people as well.

The history of Thanksgiving that I was taught as a kid is simplistic and revisionist as it does not acknowledge that the Native Americans had strict intentions in interacting with the pilgrims. They were not, as I was led to believe, a helplessly ignorant group of people. They did not foolishly welcome the white man onto their shores, nor did they gratefully accept help from their future oppressors. In their weakened state, the Wampanoag tribe orchestrated a mutually beneficial partnership with the pilgrims that lasted for roughly half of a century. They arguably saved the remaining pilgrims’ lives, only to be incrementally pushed off their land and killed by foreign pathogens and pistols.

It is unknowable who would have followed the Mayflower pilgrims and in what state the Wampanoag and other New England tribes would have been in had a partnership not been formed. Although in the end, the arrival of the pilgrims in 1620 eventually did lead to the death of tens of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of disease and warfare. This is the history upon which we base our most cherished of American holidays.

Photo: Sam Jones

This year, Thanksgiving will be commemorated as a Day of Mourning for those who died as a result of colonization and as recognition of the continued oppression and racism against their people. Every year since 1970 atop Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, indigenous and non-indigenous people have gathered at noon for a spiritual ceremony followed by select speeches about the history of their people as well as the issues facing indigenous populations across the country today. The ceremony is followed by a march through Plymouth and concludes with a feast.

For my Thanksgiving celebration this year, I will still sit with friends and family to a meal of ham and roasted vegetables, corn bread and pumpkin pie, stuffing and mashed potatoes. I will still express my gratitude for all that I have to be thankful for. But this year, I will also be adding a new tradition—a moment of silence for all of the people at whose expense my successes lie. Because I do not think that the purpose of engaging with the painful history of this country is to make those of us here today feel guilty and ashamed or angry and resentful. Instead, I believe it is to acknowledge the voices that have been silenced and the backs that have been walked on. It is also to impress the need for more tolerance, greater acceptance, and heightened awareness. As we begin another holiday season, our traditions may not change, but the intentions behind them just might.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a specialization in sustainable agricultural development. She loves to cook and frequently enjoys a brisk walk in the woods. Her goals include getting a dog, growing all of her own food, and eating her way around the world.

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Thanksgiving’s Holy Trinity: Turkey, Cranberries, and Pumpkin Pie

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.

 

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1907. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1907. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

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.

 

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1908. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Thanksgiving greeting card, 1908. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

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.

 

 

Fall Flavors and Balanced Bites: Easy, Tasty, and Flexible Recipes for your Thanksgiving Repertoire

by Hannah Meier, RD, LDN

 For many, Thanksgiving is a time to take a step back and enjoy the little things–not least of which are family, friends, and food. But Thanksgiving also falls at a high time of stress for many students (and professors alike). Take advantage of the nostalgia that this season brings, and embrace your life as it is right now–how cool is it that you GET to be stressed out by your finals at the only nutrition school of its kind in the country? Okay…maybe that’s a stretch, but I know you will at least enjoy these recipes as simple and creative ways to squeeze in some Holiday cheer. And because I love finding tasty ways to enhance the nutritional value of any dish (without, of course, compromising taste!), all of these recipes are those I’ve developed or modified from their original versions to not only provide positive Holiday vibes, but also powerful nutritional moxie.

With the dawn of the 11th month of the year comes Thanksgiving. (Really, one could argue that the feast-filled festivities kick off with the first bite of pumpkin spice whatever, which this year happened to be August 29th when Dunkin Donuts debuted its sweetly spicy treats.) If you listen closely, you might be able to hear American foodies across the country .

Thanksgiving in America has long been associated with a bountiful table of rich and delicious food, prepared with care and shared among close friends and family. As graduate students in Boston, often far from home, harnessing anything reminiscent of warm thanksgiving dinners of years past can bring some peace to the hectic pace of school and work life.

But of course, as students with limited budgets, thinly stretched time, and perhaps a particular dietary preference or two (I see AND appreciate you, vegans!), it can seem like preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast often isn’t in the cards. Think again! Get inspired with the following recipes that require just a few seasonal and nutritious ingredients, everyday kitchen tools, and easy preparation methods and savor the season as a thrifty, well-nourished omnivore or herbivore. Rest assured that the seasonal ingredients in these recipes provide meaningful nutritional benefits and come together in balanced combinations of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, cardio-protective fats, and lean proteins. Most importantly, they are absolutely delicious and worthy of being shared with your favorite people.

Appetizers & Finger Foods

Lox and Cracker Bites

Makes about 24 “Bites”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A play on the classic cream cheese, capers, and lox combination, these savory snacks can be pulled together in no time. Compared to more traditional cheese and sausage on crackers, the smoked salmon here offers anti-inflammatory fats and is less of a saturated fat bomb for a similar amount of protein. Look for whole grain crackers to round out the dish with filling fiber.

Ingredients

  • One 4-oz package of smoked salmon, sliced into thin strips
  • Plain strained (think Greek or Icelandic) yogurt—I like the consistency of Siggi’s in this recipe
  • Capers
  • Whole grain crackers (I like Mary’s Gone Crackers Rye)
  • Fresh dill (optional)
  • Cracked black pepper (optional)

Instructions

  1. Lay out about 24 crackers (you may need less or more depending on the type of cracker you use).
  2. Spread about 1 tablespoon of yogurt on each cracker. Top the crackers with a few capers, one or two slices of smoked salmon, and a pinch of fresh dill (optional).

Sprinkle black pepper over the crackers and serve.

 

Tahini Stuffed Dates (vegan)

Makes 25 dates

Photo Sourced via Pinterest (baconveggie.blogspot.ca)

Photo Sourced via Pinterest (baconveggie.blogspot.ca)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sweet-and-savory combination, stuffed dates are another great finger-food option to bring to whatever Thanksgiving celebration you find yourself attending this season. Super simple to prepare, the dates pack their sweetness into a portable, fiber-full package that is a perfect complement to the tangy tahini filling and crunchy pistachio topping. Made from sesame seeds, the tahini brings a satisfying dose of unsaturated fats and protein that helps to balance out the sugary dates.

Ingredients

  • 25 Medjool dates, pitted
  • ½ cup of tahini
  • 25 shelled pistachios for topping

Instructions

  1. If not already pitted, remove the pit from 25 dates and lay on flat surface.
  2. Peel open or slice dates down the middle, forming a “boat” for filling.
  3. Stuff each date with 1 teaspoon of tahini and top with one whole, shelled pistachio.
  4. Enjoy!

 

Side Dishes

Cauliflower and Celery Root Mash (vegan)

Inspired by Gourmande in the Kitchen

Makes 4-6 servings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is nothing wrong with potatoes, but why not try bringing something unique to the table this year? Celery root, also known as celeriac and knob celery, is in peak season during October and November. Though it is not the most handsome of vegetables, it can be eaten raw and tastes like a refreshing cross between celery and fresh parsley. When cooked, its flavor mellows to an almost nutty flavor. The combination of cauliflower and celery root in this mash brings a creamy alternative to potatoes in a dish with far less concentrated starchy carbohydrates per serving.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium celery root, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
  • 1 small head (about 16 ounces) cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Steam the celery root and cauliflower in a microwavable steamer or in a steamer basket over boiling water.
  2. Transfer the cooked celery root and cauliflower to a tall blender or food processor (you may need to work in batches). Add oil and salt and blend/process until smooth. Add 1-2 tablespoons of steaming liquid to loosen the puree if needed.
  3. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

 

Main Course

Roasted Turkey

Servings vary depending on size of bird

Adapted from Food Network Magazine

Photo Credit: http://www.bhg.com

Photo Credit: http://www.bhg.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can you get more traditional than a roasted turkey at Thanksgiving? Probably not. Though most Thanksgiving feasts are not famous for their stellar health profile, placing oven-roasted turkey at the center of the dinner table is actually a nutritionally sound tradition. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one 3 ounce serving of light meat turkey (without the skin) contains 125 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 26 grams of protein (plain meat of course does not provide any dietary carbohydrates but that’s before you smother it with cranberry sauce or gravy). Dark meat turkey gets a bad rap, but actually only contains 3 more grams of fat per serving with slightly less protein and about 25 more calories. Dark meat tends to contain a higher concentration of vitamins B-6, B-12, niacin, choline, selenium, and zinc, though the light meat is also a good source. Compared to other animal meats, roasted turkey is generally a lean choice that is low in saturated fat (animal-based saturated fats seem to consistently have the worst effect on cardiovascular disease markers) and a good source of easily digested protein. In order to get the most out of your turkey dish and avoid post-feast “meat sweats,” try to keep your portion to about a size of a deck of cards, especially if you’re filling your plate with other protein-rich dishes.

Ingredients

  • A 10- to 12-pound turkey
  • Salt and pepper (or salt-free seasoning such as Mrs. Dash)
  • Onions, carrots, and apples, all chopped into large bite-size pieces
  • Fresh herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme (per personal preference)
  • Olive oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F .
  2. If not already removed, pull neck, liver, and giblets out of cavity. Save giblets for gravy if desired.
  3. Dry turkey with paper towels, then season inside and out with salt and pepper. Try using salt-free seasoning like Mrs. Dash to reduce sodium content for sensitive individuals.
  4. Fill turkey with chopped vegetables and apples, as well as fresh herbs of choice.
  5. Place breast-side up (legs on the bottom) in a roasting pan and brush with olive oil. Tent with foil and roast for 2 hours (add an extra 15 minutes per pound for larger birds).
  6. Remove foil, baste with more oil and turn up oven to 425 degrees. Roast for another hour or so until the meat at the thigh registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds.

 

Cranberry, Lentil and Wild Rice Stuffed Acorn Squash (vegan)

Makes 4 Stuffed Squash Halves

Photo Credit: http://www.lentils.ca

Photo Credit: http://www.lentils.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuffing acorn squashes is an easy way to make it look like you can get fancy in the kitchen (but look at you, you can!) This time of year, acorn squash is plentiful at the grocery store and market, and is often on sale. If you can’t find or don’t like acorn squash, you can use a kabocha or small butternut squash instead. Winter squash, with its deep orange and yellow color, is bursting with phytochemicals, and when roasted takes on a caramelized flavor that makes it easy to forget how richly fibrous the flesh is. Did you know you can eat the squash skin? Just be sure to wash it well before cooking!

Wild rice, actually a seed not a grain, joins forces with lentils to provide a complete amino acid profile and round out the entrée as one that is entirely satisfying. Dried cranberries balance out the texture of each bite and provide irresistible jewels of tart sweetness. Enjoy this plant-based acorn squash dish as a vegan entrée or on the side of any traditional Turkey Day feast.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup uncooked wild rice
  • ¼ cup dried green or brown lentils
  • 2 cups vegetable broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • ½ cup dried cranberries (unsweetened, if you can find them)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Spices (optional): ½ teaspoon rubbed sage and  ½ teaspoon dried thyme

  • 2 medium acorn squashes, cut in half and seeds removed.

Instructions

  1. In a medium saucepan, large skillet, or rice cooker, combine rice, lentils, and vegetable broth or water. If cooking in skillet or saucepan, bring liquid to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low and simmer until rice and lentils are cooked, about 50 minutes. If cooking in rice cooker, use brown rice setting and let it do its thing.
  2. While the rice and lentils cook, preheat the oven to 400°F. Cover baking sheet with aluminum foil, lightly coat foil with oil or non-stick spray, and place squash halves cut side down. Bake until tender, about 30-35 minutes.
  3. Coat the bottom of a large skillet with olive oil and cook onion over medium-low heat. Add sage and thyme if using and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens and just begins to caramelize, about 15 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more.
  4. Add wild rice and lentil mixture to skillet. Add cranberries, and raise heat to medium-high. Cook 1-2 minutes, until mixture is heated through. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.
  5. To serve, scoop wild rice, lentil, and cranberry mixture into each squash half and enjoy!

Hannah Meier is a second-semester Nutrition Interventions, Communications and Behavior Change student and not-so-closet foodie. She loves to come up with better-for-your-body substitutions to traditional recipes that don’t sacrifice flavor or appeal. This year, she is thankful for a supportive and trusting family, and beautiful fall weather in New England.