Not everyone ate turkey yesterday.
Our family eschewed the so-called traditional Thanksgiving meal at home in Washington and drove instead to Williamsburg for "the real thing."
More than self-indulgence or a longing for the obsessive neatness of restored Williamsburg spurred the journey. It was, after all, Sir Ralph Lane -- a great and distant relation -- who is credited with discovering the Chesapeake Bay in 1585. Never mind that the Spanish colonists had found and named the Bay "Santa Maria" as early as 1573. Great-great-great-great-granduncle twice- removed Ralph got the credit.
His distinction was to lead a few dozen men from Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement at Roanoke northward overland until they came upon a peaceful band of Indians camped beside a body of water. The water was actually the Elizabeth River, or a lesser stream, and the Indians called themselves the Chesepiuc.
The name caught on, of course, but Uncle Ralph and fellow Roanokers weren't so fortunate, disappearing from the face of the earth in 1587, victims of an Indian attack or an epidemic.
It wasn't until April of 1607 that the first permanent English colony was established in the New World -- known by the British as "Virginia," in honor of their virgin Queen Elizabeth -- just down the road from Williamsburg at Jamestown. That mud-and- straw settlement is gone, silted over by the James River long ago, but nearby Williamsburg blossomed to become a city equal to Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore.
Today a visitor can admire restored Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia for nearly 90 years, or come to recall America's first Thanksgiving.
The first thing to do is to put aside all notions of those dour Bible-thumping Puritans of Plymouth, Massachusetts -- upstarts who never saw a turkey drumstick until their landing in December of 1621. By then, Virginia settlers had more than a decade of seasoning in the New World working farms, clearing the forests and learning how to make use of the abundance from the rivers, fields and woods.
Before the black-clad Puritans cut their first pumpkin pie, Virginians "yearly and perpetually keep holy . . . a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God" -- as one chronicle from 1619 put it -- with the bounty of the New World. And in Virginia, as in most of the nation up until this century, the Thanksgiving feast rarely featured turkey, dressing and potatoes.
The humble potato, in fact, hadn't made its way to the North American colonies yet. By one of the quirks of history, the potato and tomato, both native to South America but unknown in the North until the European settlement, were only just catching on in Europe after the Conquistadors brought them back to Spain.
Almost a hundred years would pass before potatoes made their North American debut. Nor was the turkey held in high favor by the colonists. The scrawny and hard-to-hunt bird simply wasn't up to the competition when it came time for serious eating in the new land.
For unlike Europe, where land was hereditarily held, the colonists weren't limited in what they could bring to their table. Only nature and physical strength set the limits on the family feast.
Early American records speak of mighty sturgeon that ripped nets to shreds; spawning shad clogging the tidal streams; sea trout, spot, flounder, bluefish, blowfish, eel and even turtle reaching the table of practically every family. The rivers and bays also yielded oysters, clams and crabs beyond numbering. Even in the great Western migrations of the last century, Conestoga wagons carried jars of Chesapeake Bay oysters to the West, so cheap and plentiful was the bounty of the waters from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
Well into the last century, in fact, most Americans graced their Thanksgiving tables not only with seafood but with bear meat, venison, wild boar, jugged hare, quail pie and buffalo (Eastern wood bison) steaks -- critters that once roamed the fields of Maryland, Virginia and even Washington itself.
Only the Puritans of Plymouth -- and Benjamin Franklin, who loved the unlovable fowl -- made a big deal over the American bird. But then, the record shows that the quarelsome and impractical Puritans so bungled their food supplies the first winter of 1621 that anything -- even turkey -- was fair game for their table. And, of course, Franklin was a nudist.
Today, all of that is lost in the dusty pages of history, and even in Williamsburg the "traditional" turkey-and-dressing dinner is still the featured meal. But with a little planning, it's possible to avoid the modern profanations of Thanksgivings past by reaching out for a little of the original.
This weekend we rented one of the restored cabins of Colonial Williamsburg with another couple. The "Quarters" is a deceptively large former slaves' home just off the main street of town and a scant block away from the good food at the Williamsburg Inn. Reeking of simplicity and austerity, the Quarters is a perfect place to start understanding early America. For it was the back- breaking labor of the slaves -- first brought to Williamsburg and Virginia in 1619 -- that propelled the infant colony into economic stability and then wealth.
It's hard to imagine how the cabin must have looked then, with a dirt floor and the rudest of furniture. But if you stand in front of the fire after a walk on the crunching gravel roads, you can sense part of it. As your belly growls and you stamp away the day's chill, the simple need for shelter and the inexplicable sweetness of the word "home" take on a new edge, especially if you've brought along a few history books to flesh out your imaginings.
There's a whole library to choose from, but the jewel is America's first known cookbook, published in 1742 by William Parks of Williamsburg, "The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Compansion." In it are handy tips on everything from curing a pimply face to baking early kitchen favorites.
How different feasting was back then. These old homes smelled of vinegar- seasoned pumpkins stewing in big iron kettles. Chickens boiled away all day with vinegar and mint, nutmeg or cinnamon. Roasting spits smoked with ducks and geese stuffed with "puddings" made of oats, milk and sweet herbs. Plum tarts, popping pork pies, boiled pork and great fish stuffed with oysters and fruit filled the mansions of the rich.
More likely, the poor folk and slaves in the early Thanksgivings partook of the Chesapeake Bay's stock -- rockfish the size of collies, filled with shellfish; chickens and ducks and geese from nearby water; and all of the vegetables and breads the kitchen could muster.
The solemn and prayerful Thanksgivings of Plymouth were never really established until the late 1800s and may not have been as grim as tradition suggests; but there's no doubt that the festivities from New York through the Carolinas were fun. The king's governor would set a date, usually in October, prompted by a good harvest, military victory or a royal wedding.
Rooted in English tradition, the fall fests included song and dance, music and frisky sport -- pillow fights among the ladies, tug- of-war for the men -- and other light- hearted fare. Then the community would retire for days -- usually three -- of continuous eating before the party broke up and all prepared for winter's harshness.
At the Quarters yesterday, things weren't so organized or manic: The $185-a-night cabin was three minutes from the Williamsburg Inn dining room. Our Thanksgiving feast included oysters, rockfish, blackeyed peas, okra and stewed tomatos, corn fritters with honey and apple cobbler. Beer and strong red wine rounded out our recreation.
Afterward, Colonial Williamsburg -- the company that owns all of restored Williamsburg -- offered a full schedule of events: a military parade and concert, organ recitals, candlelight processions and much more.
Of course, no visit would be complete without driving a few miles up the road to Berkeley Hundred, the actual site of the first recorded Thanksgiving in America. It's a farm today, but for $4 you can visit the restored mansion and beautiful outbuildings. You'll be treading the earth where, on December 4, 1619, the settlers sat down to pray and to feast in celebration of their passage to the New World.
It's something Uncle Ralph expects of us each year..