In 1621, a diverse group assembled to recognize a successful harvest and inspired a new cuisine. While the feast included food indigenous to the New World, preparation was typically European. Ever since, Thanksgiving has represented the melting pot that is America.
According to folklife specialists, Thanksgiving is the first cultural obstacle hurdled by new ethnic groups when they begin to integrate into American society. Thanksgiving is the all-American event.
Even the original group consisted of Puritans, Indians and Anglicans, a mix that is about as homogeneous as Waldorf salad. The combination works, but it shouldn't.
For Dr. Jay Anderson, professor of folklore and historical restoration at Western Kentucky University, there's a lesson there somewhere. Drawing a parallel between that time and this, he says cultural, political and social differences in the country today do not exceed those of 1621. We can learn from the Pilgrims, he says.
In a speech at a folklife conference last week at the Library of Congress, Anderson sketched the scene from which that first celebration grew.
From the very start, odds were against the union. When the Mayflower sailed from England, only 35 English Puritans felt persecuted enough to climb aboard; 65 Anglicans joined to fill out their numbers.
"That's like putting 35 Jerry Falwells with 65 Hugh Hefners and Burt Reynolds," said Anderson.
All but one survived the 66-day trip. Still, when the rural, usually communal, Puritans tried to set up shop with the urban, more independent Anglicans, anarchy threatened. The Mayflower Compact was framed to settle the conflict by establishing a temporary participatory form of government.
Their troubles weren't over, however. Desperate conditions (weather, fatigue and malnutrition) in January and February claimed 50 lives -- only half of the Pilgrims survived.
Then, on a balmy day in March, according to Anderson, an Indian walked smack into the middle of town. "Do you have bread and beer?" he asked in English. With raised eyebrows, said Anderson, the settlers fed him the next best things -- gin and smoked tongue. That Indian, Samoset, introduced them to one who spoke more fluent English.
He was Squanto, the Rosetta stone of America. He translated the Indians' knowledge of agriculture into methods used by the immigrants to grow corn, squash and beans. This, it turned out, was critical not only to the success of the settlement but to the very lives of the settlers.
That spring, the Europeans planted typically English crops to sustain their original culture as much as possible. Accustomed to consuming about 6,000 calories a day, the English needed very concentrated sources of calories. They weren't big meat eaters -- indeed, they usually ate no more than one-quarter pound of meat per day. And because cows did not make the transatlantic trip, says Anderson, cheese and butter were probably scarce.
So they planted peas for their porridge and barley for their beer. While the barley crop was "indifferent good," according to the diary of one settler, their pea crop was a total loss, says Anderson. They waited anxiously for the Indian crops to appear.
Meanwhile, they were more than a little curious as to why the Indians were so interested in making friends. It turned out that the coastal tribes, devastated by an epidemic in 1617 (probably a European disease), were so depleted that they needed all the help they could get to ward off threats by the tribes inland.
And the Pilgrims, faced with starvation because of the dismal failure of their English crops, depended on the corn crop that the Indians had taught them to plant.
Not only did the corn come up, said Anderson, but the beans and the squash grew, too. The settlers were set for the winter. They would not starve.
Tradition offered two ways to celebrate their good fortune, explained Anderson. The first was religious -- to pray and fast or feast. The other was a custom called the Harvest Home, which, according to Anderson, was based on the philosophy of "eat, drink and be merry."
They chose the latter. A typical Harvest Home festival lasted from three to five days, he said, and rather than a single meal it was more a constant grazing. Typically, scores of people milled about and participated in gaming (sports events of all kinds to which the Pilgrims were not at all averse), marching (with a show of arms), eating and drinking. Through it all, hunting parties came and went, renewing the source of food.
The first Thanksgiving included 90 Indians and 50 Pilgrims, of which, "as far as they can tell," said Anderson, five were able-bodied women. The women were, in all probability, responsible for the cooking.
Contrary to popular re-creation of the meal, the center of the banquet table probably held a goose, not a turkey. Ducks were included along with meat pies (more pastry than meat), "furmenty" (such as Indian pudding) composed of cereals and fruits, and crisp, dry "cakes." They probably had lobster and eel as well. Dark, sweet ale washed it all down.
More than 3 1/2 centuries of immigration have caused various Thanksgiving buffets to incorporate ethnic specialties. Instead of corn pudding the meal might include stir-fried vegetables; tamales might replace sweet potatoes. But since domesticated turkey has replaced the original wild duck as the focus of the meal, it has become, almost without exception, the symbol of Thanksgiving.
Pork Pies and Fine Cakes are probably a little closer to food served at the first Thanksgiving. They are, in any case, two of the recipes prepared by the Library of Congress cooking club and served at a reception for Anderson. They are nice with cocktails, but are rather heavy, so they shouldn't be served in great quantity before a large dinner.
In the Pilgrim tradition, the pies were prepared with a small proportion of meat to bread. If you're inclined to make life easier, don't bother peeling the potato or the apples.
PORK PIES (60 small pies) 2 tablespoons cooking oil 1 large onion, chopped 1 pound ground pork 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup diced, cooked potato 2 cups diced apple (about 2 medium) 2 tablespoons crushed, dried sage 1 teaspoon ground allspice 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 cup evaporated milk Biscuit dough (see recipe below) 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
In a skillet, heat oil and saute' onion until light brown. Add pork and cook, stirring, until well-done. Pour off excess fat and return to heat. Sprinkle flour over pork and stir to distribute evenly. Add potato and apple and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Stir in sage and spices. Add milk and stir until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly before using.
Roll biscuit dough to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut in 3-inch rounds. Place one teaspoon of filling on each. Fold dough over filling, forming a crescent. Seal and decorate with tines of a fork. Place on ungreased baking sheet and brush with egg mixture. Make a knife slash in the middle of each to allow steam to escape. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.
BISCUIT DOUGH (Enough for 60 small pies) 4 cups all-purpose flour 2 tablespoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup vegetable shortening 1/4 cup butter 1 1/2 cups milk
Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add shortening and butter and cut in with pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Stir in milk until liquid is absorbed. Gather dough into a ball and place on a floured surface. Knead briefly until mixture is smooth. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Roll out one portion to about 1/8-inch thickness (if in doubt, roll it too thin rather than too thick). Using a biscuit cutter or glass, cut 3-inch rounds (when in doubt, make them bigger rather than smaller). Repeat with remaining portions of dough.
FINE CAKES (25 small cakes)
Fine Cakes are reminiscent of shortbread -- sweet and rich, but dense rather than crispy. They make a nice holiday sweet after a meal and are a welcome gift. This extemely easy recipe comes from "To the Queen's Taste," by Lorna Sass for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 3/4 cup butter at room temperature 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg, separated 1 3/4 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/8 teaspoon mace
Cream the butter. Add sugar and beat until fluffy. Beat egg yolk. Add yolk to butter-sugar mixture and beat until thoroughly blended. Combine flour, cloves and mace in a sifter and sift into butter mixture. Combine by stirring or with hands. Press mixture into a 9-inch square baking pan. Brush top lightly with egg white. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes, or until cake feels firm when pressed lightly in the center. Cut into small squares while cake is still hot. Cool on wire rack.