Thu, Nov 22, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Americans give thanks the way pilgrims didn't


When Americans sit down today to eat stuffed Thanksgiving turkey, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, followed by a slice of pumpkin pie, many think they are upholding a 400-year-old tradition.

They aren't.

The meal settlers from England shared with native Americans in 1621, which has come to be known as the first Thanksgiving, probably didn't feature many of the culinary favorites that grace tables at present day Thanksgivings, and almost definitely did not happen in November, a food historian said.

Indeed, 1621 wasn't even a festival of giving thanks, but was "clearly a harvest festival," said Kathleen Curtin of the Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, where a 17th-century farming village set up by English colonists on native American tribal lands has been recreated.

"We know that the meal in 1621 included venison, brought by the Wampanoag Indians and wild fowl - probably geese and duck hunted by the settlers," Curtin said.

"They didn't have stuffing. They didn't have cranberry sauce because it requires too much sugar. And they probably had pumpkin but no flour or butter for pie crust," she said.

"We don't think there was much alcohol because the settlers' barley harvest wasn't very successful, and they didn't have time to brew anything," she added.

Curtin also stood another tradition on its head by saying the first Thanksgiving happened in September or early October rather than late November.

On Monday, US President George W. Bush cast more doubt on whether the 1621 dinner in Plymouth was the first Thanksgiving, as he recalled a group of English settlers who prayed at what is now Berkeley Plantation in Virginia two years before then.

No feasting took place at the Berkeley Thanksgiving, as Bush called it - but then the idea of a massive feast is another myth.

"Thanksgiving was a religious event the English settlers had every fall, which was followed up with feasting. We know it was marked around New England in the late 1600s," said Curtin.

"Over time, the feasting became more important and the religious part became less and less important.

"Finally, we got football and something had to go - it was the church service."

Today's Thanksgiving dinners are often digested in front of the television, while a football game is aired.

The reason there's a big to-do over the dinner of 1621 is that historians believe it was the first time Native Americans and English settlers celebrated a harvest together, said Curtin.

Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall, a tribal elder on the Fallon Indian Reservation in Nevada, agreed.

"Native Americans were having harvest festivals forever, and so were the English back in England. They did it together in 1621," Fortunate Eagle said. But he and Curtin differed over who hosted whom in 1621.

"The native Americans were being generous hosts and sharing their bounty with the pitiful English. It was the generosity and the sharing of the native Americans that made it possible for the settlers to survive in the new world," Fortunate Eagle said.

"The English would certainly have been playing host ... but they were in the middle of the Wampanoag homeland, and Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag people, would certainly have expected that he would be welcome," said Curtin.

Thanksgiving officially moved to late November in 1863, when president Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the bloody civil war, proclaimed the last Thursday of the month as a day for giving thanks.

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