Forget what your kindergarten teacher taught you; there’s no such thing as the original Thanksgiving. "It’s a nice myth that was created in 1841," says Andrew Smith, contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, referencing the story we all know so well. "The Puritans—the pilgrims—they’d celebrate days of thanksgiving, but it was a day you spent in church thanking God for a bountiful harvest, or maybe a victory over the Indians. What you didn’t do was sit down and eat. That would be a frivolous activity."
So where did Thanksgiving come from? Why are we eating this meal with our inlaws and second cousins?
In 1841, with the rise of universal education, New England historians needed U.S. history lessons for school books. Being a somewhat young, rebellious country, there wasn’t a very positive spin, especially when you consider our origins in Jamestown, where we landed to enslave the Native Americans. "The textbook publishers said, ‘We can’t have this start in Jamestown! It has to start in Plymouth!’" Smith explains.
Digging for such a story, one historian did find a single letter published in a British journal from 1622. It mentions a harvest festival in which "the Governor sent four men on fowling," and they killed an exceptional number of birds. So they invited the Native Americans over to an impromptu three-day feast. Nowhere is "Thanksgiving" mentioned in this letter (in fact, no first-hand accounts mention Thanksgiving for 200 more years). But when this letter was republished in the 1800s, a footnote was added: "… the first thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England." So that became our origin story of one of our most beloved holidays, a footnote added to a tangentially related story two centuries after the fact.
In reality, the sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner we know began sometime in the early 19th century in New England. The fall harvest (and its natural gluttony) melded with this once-Puritan tradition of formal thanks. What emerged were huge, secular meals that we’d mostly recognize today, but they were loosely organized and highly regionalized.
Thanksgiving still wasn’t considered a holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale, who you know from penning Mary Had a Little Lamb, edited the largest woman’s magazine of the time (Godey’s Lady’s Book), with a circulation of over 1 million. Spreading the culture of her New England roots, she’d use this platform to advocate making Thanksgiving an officially observed holiday. Starting in 1846, she wrote to governors for 17 years, state by state, to coordinate such an event. By 1859, she had 30 states and three territories involved, but Hale was met with resistance, in the South especially, as Thanksgiving was seen as a day when northern Evangelicals—a less strict Christian sect gaining influence from the Puritans—could preach against slavery.
Ironically, it was only after the Civil War broke out that Hale’s northerner tradition would cross the Mason-Dixon line. Amidst brutal national conflict, Lincoln recognized the need for a unifying day for the whole country, and Thanksgiving became our third national holiday in 1863 (behind Washington’s birthday and the 4th of July). Even though it took a few decades for parts of the South to actually participate, eventually even they came around, too. "You didn’t have a fall holiday," Smith points out, "so this in some ways fit in with spacing out the days of celebration."
Ultimately, you have all of these discrete forces coming together to form Thanksgiving that were unique to a 19th-century America—a need for revisionist history, an earnest quest for new tradition, the migration of New Englanders across the country, a hope for an end to civil war, and a cold weather holiday before the era of Christmas. But while it’s the myriad of cultural reasons that made this harvest festival Thanksgiving, it’s the harvest that made Thanksgiving the dinner we know today.
Food was, of course, the most practical reason behind Thanksgiving’s meal. The harvest comes in fall, when, before the days of advanced preservation, we were faced with overabundance. Gorging was somewhat of a necessity, lest the food go to waste, and harvest festivals span beyond the United States for this reason. "For the first Thanksgiving (1863), you’d expect they had a corn harvest. Most likely they were growing squash, not what you think of as a pumpkin but squash," Smith says. "They had a wheat harvest that wasn’t very successful. There were tens of millions of migratory birds coming back and forth in New England of that time."
From historical accounts in the early 19th century, you would have seen tables full of turkey, beef, duck, ham, sausage, potatoes, yams, succotash, pickles, nuts, raisins, pears, peaches, pie, tarts, creams, custards, jellies, plum (or other) puddings, floating islands, sweetbreads, wines, rum, brandy, egg-nog, and punch. The fowl component could have been any sort of wild game you can imagine, ending up on a table or in a pot pie. New England also had the U.S.'s first cattle industry—meaning recently slaughtered red meat would come into play, most likely in roast beef. Oysters, coastal fish, and venison would have been on tables, too. And in the South? "It would have definitely been pork. Pork was the meat in the South," Smith says. "It was the meat in America until the late 19th century."
More than anything, Smith emphasizes that the first Thanksgiving was personalized to whatever was around to eat—local-seasonal at its most pure. So maybe we should ask ourselves, why are we still all eating turkey, let alone, turkey that’s been bred to have less flavor and a bigger, blander breast than what our forefathers ate? Sure, it was (and is) cheap. It was easily domesticated. And it could feed a lot of people. But almost 150 years after the first Thanksgiving, we’re eating worse, not better. "Quite frankly, I’d rather serve duck," Chef Tom Colicchio admits, when I pose him that very question. "There’s something nice about that big turkey that’s nice and brown, but it’s not very good. No matter how skilled you are, it’s usually somewhat on the dry* side."
At Craft, Colicchio, who’s best known as a judge for Bravo’s Top Chef, has been serving a Thanksgiving dinner for the last 11 years. And to me, despite how delicious his foie gras/pork belly stuffing must be, a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner is still a bit of an oxymoron. Think beyond your fond memories of childhood for a moment. The prototypical Thanksgiving dinner is an inherently bland meat with a bunch of starchy sides. "The Thanksgiving meal doesn’t have the balance that you’d find putting together a restaurant dish," he admits, "that balance of acids and maybe spice." Thanksgiving is not fine dining; it was never designed that way. So what should we, as a staunch, foodie culture do differently? If you take our modern "traditional" foods out of the equation, what’s the ideal Thanksgiving meal you could (and maybe should) be eating?
"You’re basically asking what is on my fall menu," he laughs. "I think a lot of what I’d do is what’s available at the market. The meat would definitely be different. It wouldn’t be a turkey. It would probably either be venison or pheasant or something like that." Colicchio points out the seasonality of seafaring proteins like oysters and Nantucket Bay scallops, and his seasonal sides include brussel sprouts, squashes, huckleberries, apples, chestnuts, various root vegetables, and quince—many of those components, of course, are part of a truly traditional Thanksgiving dinner because truly traditional Thanksgiving dinners were completely about the harvest. "That’s why I never understood greenbeans. Greenbeans season is pretty much over!" he says. "Interestingly enough, there’s a variety of pea you do harvest right now—though it might be a little late."
Much because of the natural overlap of seasonal items and traditional Thanksgiving foods, Colicchio argues that Thanksgiving meal traditions are less about the actual components of the feast, and more about what you actually do with those components. Do you roast squash or do you puree it? Do you deep fry a turkey or throw it on a grill? His Thanksgiving menu at Craft puts breakfast sausage in that fancy foie gras/pork belly stuffing. Why? Because that’s what his grandma did. "When you talk about traditions, I don’t think anyone thinks of the first Thanksgiving as their tradition. The tradition is what you had at your house," he says. "There is absolutely no way I’d put marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes and call it a dish. But it’s traditional for some people to do, and I don’t want to knock someone’s tradition.
Then he thinks for a moment, no doubt imagining those melted marshmallow puffs sitting atop a radioactive orange puree.
"You know, I didn’t grow up with that dish—but I think if i did grow up with it, I probably would have changed it," he laughs.
*Colicchio shared a fantastic, obvious-in-retrospect tip to cook turkey perfectly. Because white meat always gets done before dark meat, bake until the turkey breast is done, remove it from the oven and carve off the legs. Then just toss the legs back in a hot pan in the oven, pink-flesh down, for about 10 minutes.
[Images: Norman Rockwell, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, James Reid Lambdin, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and Shutterstock]