This week and next, I’m exploring some of the myths about the First Thanksgiving. We’ve discussed how the Pilgrims were not, in fact, Pilgrims (they had much fancier terms for themselves back in 1621). We’ve looked at a bizarre recipe for sour stewed pumpkin. Today let’s talk about the biggest myth of all: the story of Thanksgiving itself.
We like to think of the original Thanksgiving as a homey, elaborate feast out on the grounds of the new Plymouth colony. There are colonists and Native Americans dining together at long wooden tables, and little English children playing games with the Native children in the woods. The tables are groaning with pies, mashed potatoes, and roast turkeys. And at some point during the feast, the colonists thank God for their good fortune and count their blessings.
But that’s not how it really went.
The Myth of Thanksgiving
Having survived a dreadful first winter, the English focused on building their village and planting crops. By the fall of 1621, they had a decent harvest of corn and other crops. It was an English tradition to celebrate the harvest with a big feast, so the English colonists probably decided to hold a similar, secular feast. Governor William Bradford decided to mark the successful harvest with three days of feasting somewhere between September and November of 1621. He sent some men out to hunt “wildfowl,” or geese and ducks. Massasoit, a sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag, brought 90 of his men and other members of his tribe to join in the feasting at Plymouth, which lasted for three days.
However, this didn’t become an annual event for the colonists. Remember, the Separatists didn’t believe in traditional holidays. They did believe in the concept of “thanksgiving,” a day where they thanked God for sparing them from some specific, dreadful fate, like a flood or a drought. They celebrated by reciting psalms, praying, and listening to sermons. There was probably food involved, but no special emphasis on feasting. So there were probably few Christian undertones to the harvest feast that took place in 1621.
The first religious “thanksgiving” to mark God’s favor didn’t occur until 1623, when the Separatists thanked God for ending a drought. But there was no feast mentioned in this account.
The original 1621 feast had a stronger spiritual undertone to the Wampanoag, who believed in thanking the Creator for food and good fortune throughout the year. The time between September 21 and November 9 was known as Keepunumuk, or the Wampanoag harvest time. So interestingly, “Thanksgiving” as we think of it today may have had its annual roots in Wampanoag tradition.
But it took some time for Thanksgiving to actually become a formal holiday for Anglo-Americans. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that it had become an annual holiday, celebrated regionally. And not until 1863 did Thanksgiving become a national holiday, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. Though well-intentioned, poor Mrs. Hale based her campaign on the erroneous assumption that the 1621 harvest feast was the “First Thanksgiving.”
So at the heart of one of America’s favorite holidays is a giant misconception.
Similarly, no one’s certain that the colonists ate roast turkey at the 1621 feast. Yes, they ate “wildfowl,” but that meant geese and ducks in the lingo of the day. There were turkeys in the Wampanoag lands at the time, so most historians think it’s okay to include turkey in a recreated 1621 meal.
But I’m stubborn, so I cooked the fowl more likely to be at the feast: duck. I’d made duck only once before, and it had come out dry and tough, so I was hesitant. But this recipe, which involves boiling the duck in water before finishing it off in the oven, makes for a tender, juicy meat, mildly flavored with pepper and onion. The red wine sauce adds a sweet note to the rich taste of the duck. If you’ve never cooked duck before, this is so the recipe to start with.
Roast Duck with Cranberries and Wine
(slightly adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)
For the duck:
1 4- or 5-pound duck
2 1/2 tsp salt
10 black peppercorns
1 onion, quartered
1/2 cup parsley leaves and stems, roughly chopped
2 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
For the sauce:
2 cups red wine
1/3 cup parsley leaves, chopped
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1/2 tsp ground mace
1/4 cup cranberries, chopped
1 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
Rinse the duck and remove any giblets and/or the neck from the inner cavity. Place the duck in a large pot (6-8 quarts) along with 2 tsp of the salt, peppercorns, quartered onion, and parsley. Pour in enough cold water to cover and bring to a simmer over high heat. Cover and simmer the duck for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the sliced onions in a roasting pan and remove the duck from the pot. Reserve the broth.* Sprinkle remaining 1/2 tsp of salt and the ground pepper over the duck and place it on top of the onions in the roasting pan. Roast at 400 F for 25 – 30 minutes, until clear juices run out from the duck when pricked with a knife.
Place 1 cup of the broth in a saucepan, along with the wine, parsley, ginger, raisins, mace, and sugar. Boil over medium-high heat until reduced to a syrupy mixture, about 20 minutes. When sauce is ready, stir in the cranberries. Add the butter one tbsp at a time. Serve the duck with the sauce at the table.
*Department of Not Wasting Food: You can reduce the remaining broth and freeze it as a stock to use later.