britain, history lesson, holidays, movies, vegetables

The "First" Thanksgiving (I)

With Thanksgiving little more than a week away, I’ve had cooking on the brain. No wonder–it’s the only national holiday entirely devoted to food (plus, well, giving thanks). Is there anything more wonderful? I decided to honor the holiday by investigating its historic roots.

(And, as you know, I can’t leave well enough alone.)

The results were fascinating. There are so many myths built up around this holiday that when you strip it down to its historical truth, there isn’t much that’s recognizable. We might as well call it The Thanksgiving that Wasn’t. This week I’ll be examining some of the bigger myths, along with recipes I used to cook a historical Thanksgiving for me and Josh (brave man).

The Myth of the Pilgrims

The English colonists who settled on Massachusetts Bay in 1620, the ones who famously landed the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock, weren’t Pilgrims. They didn’t call themselves Pilgrims at all. Instead they thought of themselves in two separate groups: Separatists, the religious ones who just wanted to worship freely, and “Strangers,” the secular ones who wanted a fresh start in the New World. What’s more, the Separatists wanted to be so separate from the English church that they refused to celebrate traditional holidays. So they began building Plymouth, their first village, on Christmas Day.

That First Winter in the New World was so awful that half of the original Mayflower passengers died. (There’s an excellent portrayal of the harsh New World winters in Terrence Malick’s The New World, which is about Virginia.) In the spring, the Native Wampanoag took pity on them and helped them plant corn. Squanto, a Native who’d been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Spain before making his way back to the New World, had learned English during his captivity and helped the colonists communicate with the Wampanoag. With the help of the local tribes, the colonists planted native crops like corn, squash, and pumpkins (called “pompions” back then), as well as English crops they’d brought with them.

Not surprisingly, most of the native crops fared much better than the English crops.

The colonists were actually intimately familiar with pumpkins; the vegetable had been introduced to Europe following the Columbian Exchange. They were sort of obsessed with pumpkins. They even wrote songs about how dependable pumpkins were. I am 100% serious. Stewed pumpkin was a staple in England, and the English just kept on cooking it in colonial New England.

Therefore, stewed pumpkin was definitely served at the 1621 harvest feast, and I replicated a traditional recipe for our own dinner. This version is sort of cheating because you use canned pumpkin rather than stewing a pumpkin over a fire all day, but you get the same effect. However, the strangest thing about this recipe is its liberal use of apple cider vinegar, which lends the pumpkin a sour sort of flavor. Josh and I were not at all sure about this. But you’ll have to tell me what you think.

Stewed Pumpkin
(adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)

2 cups canned pumpkin
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt

Heat all ingredients in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring to incorporate. Cook until the pumpkin is heated through, about 5-7 minutes.

Works Cited: Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation. Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday by James W. Baker.


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