Roast without equal: For this recipe, you will need one each sky-lark, thrush, quail, ortolan, lapwing, golden plover, partridge, woodcock, teal, guinea-hen, guinea *fowl*, wild duck, fowl, red pheasant, wild goose, bustard, and fig pecker. Pluck and gut the birds, then stuff the smallest bird into the next smallest bird’s cavity and so on until you have one neutron star of bird meat. Paraphrased from a 17th century cookbook. And you thought turduckens were a new thing. My name’s….
Let’s go through the myths and misconceptions by working our way through a painting, odd choice as that may be for the audio-only medium of podcasting. Luckily, we don’t have to pick just one. Most paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving, in big air quotes, of 1621, contain the same things — a group of Puritan settlers, dressed in austere black clothing with bright metal buckles, around a table laden with food, maybe the patriarch is offering a prayer, and a small group of Native Americans can be seen in the background, maybe one or two in the foreground. If I were to show you Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s The First Thanksgiving or “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, painted within a year of each other coincidentally, you’d say, “oh yeah, that was in my history book.” Which year? All of them, probably. So that’s how we’ve been taught to think of historical thanksgivings, but let’s update the image.
Paintings of the first Thanksgiving refer to a feast in 1621. What we actually know about that feast is limited. It mostly comes from a single letter written by Edward Winslow. 220 years later, in 1841, his letter was published in Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers by Boston writer and publisher Alexander Young, and it was Young who called the gathering the “First Thanksgiving,” even though the word “thanksgiving” doesn’t appear anywhere in Winslow’s letter. That feast wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving to the pilgrims. Puritans did observe “thanksgiving days” after fortunate events, like a good harvest, but those were religious observances. People spent the day in church, often in silent prayer, and they fasted rather than feasted. It’s almost the polar opposite of the way we celebrate today. So that day wasn’t Thanksgiving, and it wasn’t even the first, for a few reasons. For starters, it didn’t happen a second time, let alone annually, so it can hardly be said to be the first of anything. It would take more than 200 years for an autumn feast referred to as Thanksgiving to widely proliferate. Second, it wasn’t the first meal shared by Europeans and Native Americans in the New World.
A reasonable drive from my home here in Virginia is the Berkeley Plantation, where “a” Thanksgiving feast was held, this one by Europeans alone. Three dozen settlers arrived in Chesapeake Bay in 1619, on a ship captained by a man who had survived the winter of 1609 in the Jamestown colony, a winter referred to as “the starving time.” After a rough two-and-a-half months at sea and another week on inland waterways, they finally arrived at Berkeley Hundred, later called Berkeley Plantation, on December 4. They disembarked, assembled a meal from what ships rations they still had, ham and oysters probably, and said prayers of Thanksgiving. It was declared that their arrival must “be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” And so it was…for two whole years. In March 1622, the Powhatan, haven’t noticed the settlers weren’t leaving and in fact were expanding their territory, and they kept trying to “convert” and “civilized” them, attacked Berkeley and other settlements, killing over 300. Fair play to ya, boys. If you ask historians in Maine, they’ll tell you the first such meal happened not in 1621 in Massachusetts, but in 1607 in Popham, ME. The Popham colony barely lasted a year, thanks to a fire in their storehouse during a particularly harsh winter and miscalculations like staying in a fort right on the shore, rather than moving inland where the forest could have provided a windbreak. They arrived in the summer, shared a meal with locals that October, and called it quits the following spring. Don’t tell the Mainers, though, but they may have been beaten to firsties by 50 years, by Florida, of all places. In September 1565, 800 Spanish colonists, under captain and priest Father Francisco Lopez, disembarked in what they would dub St. Augustine and gathered around a makeshift altar for a thanksgiving mass, all the while, being watched by the local Timucua tribe. The Spanish invited the Timucuans to join them for a meal. “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land,” wrote University of Florida professor emeritus of history Michael Gannon in his book “The Cross in the Sand.” As would happen in Berkeley, the feast was mostly leftovers from the ship, but isn’t leftovers what the Thanksgiving meal is really about? Some historians argue that while America’s first Thanksgiving indeed took place in Florida, it was actually 40 miles north and one year earlier, when French Huguenots held a thanksgiving mass and feasted with the Timucuans to celebrate the June 1564 establishment of Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville. And then there’s Texas, which claims to have had the first new world thanksgiving way back in 1541, when thanksgiving mass was held for 1500 conquistadors under Coronado. I feel like Linda Richman from SNL, “The first thanksgiving was neither first nor Thanksgiving; discuss.”
Ever wonder how the Europeans were able to communicate with the Native Americans effectively enough to invite them to dinner and not such sit in awkward silence? In March 1621, an Abenaki man who history records as Samoset, made first contact with the pilgrims, by walking right up to them and asking, in English, if they had any beer. He had learned English from fishermen who frequented the waters of Maine, but it was limited. A week later, he approached the settlement with someone who could parlez better, someone you may have heard of, Squanto, the last surviving member of the Patuxet. Squanto had had a lot of exposure to Europeans. Like, a lot. He’d been kidnapped by a British ship in 1605, lived in England for 9 years, returned to North America, then a different British ship kidnapped him and tried to sell him into slavery in Spain, some Spanish friars rescued Squanto and he made his way back to London, took a ship that landed in Newfoundland, which he was dismayed to discover was too long a walk from home, so he just went back to England, where he signed up for an exploration to New England, and went back across the Atlantic for an unbelievable sixth time, at which point he was fluent in English and familiar with European customs.
Back to those paintings, they’re also set too late in the fall. We celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, but that is way late for a harvest festival. The meal probably took place in September, and was a tradition the colonists brought with them. Feasts to celebrate the harvest were not unique. Many native tribes celebrated at the end of the growing season, as did people back in jolly old England and in fact all across Europe, and had been for as long as mankind’s survival had been dependent on the cycle of the seasons. In England and Ireland, the festival became known as the Harvest Home Festival. Whoever cut the last sheaf of grain was known as the lord of the harvest. In some parts of England, a harvest queen was chosen. The village church would be decorated with autumn flowers and vegetables and a loaf of bread made from the newly harvested wheat was placed on the altar, and people came to the church to give thanks to God for the harvest. Once all the grain was put-up, it was time to feast. Traditional foods included roast beef and ale, accompanied by autumn vegetables. That last sheaf of grain was displayed prominently and at the dance that followed, the girl who had tied the last sheaf was the first to dance with the farmer or his eldest son.
So the pilgrims already had harvest festival traditions. I should probably take a minute here to clear up your imagining of the pilgrims. Though pilgrim just means a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious regions, when you say it in America, we think of the Puritans –members of a religious reform movement known as Puritanism that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century, and believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should eliminate ceremonies and practices not rooted in the Bible, which includes things like celebrating Christmas– who left England to escape religious persecution. Except…they’d already done that. They’d emigrated from England to Holland, where they had all the religious freedom they could ask for, but couldn’t get a foothold financially. Some were also worried about assimilating into Dutch culture, so off across the ocean they went. According to James W. Loewen, sociologist and the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” “They were also coming here in order to establish a religious theocracy, which they did,” he said. “That’s not exactly the same as coming here for religious freedom. It’s kind of coming here against religious freedom.” Also, the Pilgrims never called themselves Pilgrims. They were separatists, Mr. Loewen said. The term Pilgrims wasn’t applied to them until around 1880. And as for the austere black clothes with metal buckles on the shoes, which makes sense, and on the hat, which makes no sense whatsoever, that’s as much from an artist’s imagination as horns on viking helmets. Black and gray were reserved for Sundays, and since the feast wasn’t a religious observance, they would have worn their regular clothes, which came in every color they had dye for. Leather was preferred for closing shoes and cinching waists, because it was much, much cheaper.
We’ve also got to set aside the cute story that the Plymouth colonists invited the local Wampanog to dine with them in thanks for helping them with their farming. The Wampanog just showed up. And not the three or four you see in the paintings. Edward Winslow’s letter says there were “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” Only about 50 colonists had survived that long, so there would have been twice as many Wampanoag as there were Brits.
Well, if they Wampanog didn’t teach the settlers to farm, they at least introduced them to turkey. [buzzer] Wrong again. Europeans knew all about turkeys. Spanish explorers brought domesticated turkeys back from the New World in the previous century, and turkeys started appearing on English menus no later than 1550. Turkey may or may not have been on the Plymouth table, but it wouldn’t have been the centerpiece. Edward Winslow wrote home to a friend: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. ”
Let’s pause here to talk turkey [rimshot]. I’ll show myself out. We “know” more false things about turkeys than we do real things. Like Ben Franklin’s campaign to make the turkey the national bird of the fledgling, npi, country. Franklin liked turkeys, but we only have evidence of one mention of it, far below the standard of evidence for a flat-out campaign. Two years after the approval of the now-familiar seal with the bald eagle, Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter, that was primarily concerned with a military fraternity Franklin disapproved of, “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote. The Founding Father argued that the eagle was “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from the fishing hawk and is “too lazy to fish for himself.” Franklin did propose a different great seal, one with Moses at the Red Sea.
Turkeys don’t all gobble. [sfx] That’s a trick reserved almost exclusively by the males. And it’s not just the gobble. Hens make high-pitched yelps, and strutting toms produce a non-vocal thump, like a bass drum. Males and females alike sound a choppy series of honks as an alarm when they suspect predators. [sfx] [WKRP] And yes, turkeys can fly. Wild turkeys can easily fly 100 yards, but they don’t bother unless they’re escaping predation or getting into a tree to roost. The broad-breasted breeds developed for industrial agriculture can’t fly, because their strength-to-mass ratio is too out of whack. In fact, and I want to specify that this next bit is a fact and not a myth, modern farmed turkeys not only cannot fly, they can’t mate. The broad-breasted white, the most common commercial breed, is bred to efficiently convert feed to meat, at a ratio of 2 to 1, meaning you only have to put two pounds of feed into them for every pound of meat you’ll get. They reach market weight in only 16 weeks, which often means they have difficulty standing or moving on their own because their legs can’t keep up with the weight gain. The giant breasts we enjoy so much are too large to allow a tom to effectively mount a hen. The result of this is that nearly 100% of commercial domestic turkeys are the product of artificial insemination. And guess how it’s done–with an aspirator that looks like a tiny siphon for stealing gas…I’m told. A worker sucks the semen from the tom turkey with a tube with a containment vessel in the middle, to then deposit in the hens.
But let’s move past all that to the head, feet, feathers, and organs gone stage. You take the wrapper off the bird and now the big questions, to rinse or not to rinse? Grandma might have told you it’s necessary to get rid of salmonella, but in reality, if your turkey does have salmonella, all rinsing will do is spread it around. The exception is if you brined it, which you should, to rinse off herbs and such. By the way, if you’ve never butterflied your turkey, definitely try it. It cooks in much less time, meaning it’s less prone to drying out. And get rid of that plastic pop-up thermometer. Even if they behaved reliably, which they don’t, they’re set to pop at 180deg F/82 deg C, which leaves you with a giant pile of meat with all the flavor and juices of a stack of paper napkins. And don’t go pinning the blame for your food coma on the turkey. [sfx yawn] Yes, turkeys do contain the essential amino acid L-tryptophan, which the body uses to make serotonin and melatonin, but not, you know, a lot. To get enough tryptophan in your system to knock you out before halftime in the Lions game, you’d have to consume a massive dose of pure tryptophan.
Why do the Detroit Lions always have a game on Thanksgiving day anyway? The idea to play on the holiday came from Lions owner George A. Richards in 1934, who wanted to attract more fans to what was then the second-string team in town. Unlike religion-based holidays, Thanksgiving is an American holiday and was a guaranteed day off for the industrial workforce that was the lifeblood of the Motor City. Richards owned a radio station that was a major NBC affiliate and he negotiated a deal with NBC to broadcast the Thanksgiving game on 94 stations across the country, [sfx tuning and cheers] and a tradition was born. But if you nod off during the game, you’re more likely sugar-crashing from a giant plate of carbs followed by three kinds of pie with whipped cream. And if you’re a dark meat fan, good news! While white meat has fewer fat and calories, dark meat offers a greater density of nutrients like B vitamins and iron. I’m having some trouble substantiating the claim that the terms white and dark meat were Victorian euphemisms for breast and thigh, so we’ll leave an asterisk on that one.
What else was on the table in 1621? The Wampanog brought in four deer they’d hunted earlier that day. Venison was a special food back in England, so this gift was a much bigger deal to the recipients than the gifters. William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentioned, described “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.” For those who think the presence of “Indian corn” means popcorn, [sfx] I’m sorry to disabuse you, but no. This myth comes from a specific source, the 1889 novel Standish of Standish by Jane G. Austin, with an i, not Jane Austen with an e. The corn that grew in Plymouth was Northern Flint corn, which doesn’t have the strong kernels needed to hold in the pressure of the moisture inside turning to steam, before finally bursting.
None of my research has indicated that there would be a dish like dressing/stuffing, but nothing said there wouldn’t be either. Dressing/stuffing is a good way to use up stale bread, assuming you’re doing well enough to have bread around long enough to go stale. And on the nomenclature, you may subscribe to the idea that moistened croutons cooked inside the bird is stuffing and cooked in a dish is dressing, but it’s actually geography that tends to determine which word people use. Dressing is said to be more common in the south, regardless of how it was prepared, while stuffing is more common up north. Southern Living magazine found that to be true when looking at which word people use when searching for recipes, though Butterball found the dressing states to be sprinkled across the whole country. You’ve probably heard of the Butterball help line and the hapless crises callers have, like a man who put the still-wrapped turkey into the bathtub with his kids to thaw it or the woman whose chihuahua got inside the turkey and refused to come out. The Turkey Talk line is still going strong, even when people can say “hey, whoever” and try to get an answer from their phone or smart speaker. You can also call their competitors Perdue and Honeysuckle White or the U.S. Department of Meat and Poultry Hotline. There was even a time in the 70’s when you could ask Julia Child for help, not because she was offering it as a service, but because her number was in the phone book.
There was lots of meat, but no potatoes, mashed, sweet or otherwise. White potatoes, originating in South America, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, had yet to infiltrate North America. Cranberry sauce was there, but as a tart sauce for the meat, not a side unto itself. Cranberries need a lot of sugar to be edible and that was a precious resource. That’s one of the reasons there were no dessert pies at the feast. In addition to sugar, pies also require flour and butter for the crust, and an oven to bake it in, which the Puritans didn’t have. They did have pumpkins, which were often used like turrines, a big edible pot in which to cook soup next to the fire. When you go to make your pumpkin pie and you reach to that orange-labelled can, the pie you make may not actually be pumpkin. This is a fact I’ve been dropping on customers at the grocery store (yeah, I’m back in retail, and with such good timing, she sarcazed), though I may be over-simplifying it. The Libby’s company makes about 85% of the pumpkin puree sold *worldwide, but they don’t use field pumpkins, the ones for carving, or sugar pumpkins, the small ones you might grown in your own garden. They use Dickinson squash, an orange-fleshed squash the size of a good pumpkin, with paler skin and a more oblong or acorn-like shape. How can they get away with lying to us like that? The FDA allows you to slap the pumpkin label on any “golden-fleshed, sweet squash, or mixtures of such squash and field pumpkin.” So that would include butternut squash, which is a great substitute for pumpkin in a pinch. Check the freezer case for diced butternut if you don’t have time to roast one off. Folks with opinions about this sort of thing disagree on whether the Dickinson squash are pumpkins, with one camp saying they are and another camp saying they’re not, and me off to the side pointing out that the pumpkin is a squash anyway. Check your nearest heirloom seed catalog, because Dickinsons aren’t proprietary, you can grow them yourself.
So, if the first thanksgiving was a one-off, how did it become entrenched in American life? The dogmatic Puritans of the 17th century evolved into the 18th century’s more cosmopolitan Yankees and the emotional importance of a New England family gathered together around the table far outstripped the dwindling religious significance. Westward expansion and the popular press helped spread the New England tradition to the rest of the nation. The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, but it was more like what the Puritan thanksgiving had been and not what the New England thanksgiving had become, recommending “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.” Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but Thomas Jefferson was not a fan. It was entirely too churchy for him and Jefferson was quite keen on keeping church and state separate. In a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller in 1808, Jefferson wrote, “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. …But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from.” It then fell to individual states and territories to declare thanksgiving when, and if, they chose to, which by the 1850s, almost everyone did.
Many people felt that this family holiday should be a national celebration, especially Sarah Josepha Hale, the influential editor of the popular women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1827, she began a campaign to reinstate the holiday after the model of the first Presidents. She publicly petitioned several Presidents to make it an annual event. Sarah Josepha Hale’s efforts finally succeeded in 1863, when she was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might serve to unite a war-torn country. The President declared two national Thanksgivings that year, one for August 6 celebrating the victory at Gettysburg and a second for the last Thursday in November.
Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event. A President still had to proclaim Thanksgiving each year, and the last Thursday in November became the customary date. What Lincoln did do was pardon a turkey, but it was a Christmas turkey. For my listeners in other countries –and I want to take a second to shout out Eric in England who I jokingly asked to find some milk vodka and taste it for me, and he only went and did it! [round of applause] — we have a tradition in which the president pardons a Thanksgiving turkey so it won’t be killed and eaten. It’s puppy dog news at best, but it’s tradition. The turkeys used to live their lives out at the ironically threateningly named Frying Pan Farm Park in northern Virginia, but from 2005 to 2009, the pardoned turkeys were sent to a Disney park to be the honorary grand marshals of Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1863, the Lincoln family received a turkey as a gift, with the intent to make it Christmas dinner. But 10 year old Tad Lincoln got attached to the turkey, which he named Jack. Shortly before Jack’s execution, Tad figured out what was going in. He successfully stalled the person tasked with dispatching the bird and Tad ran into a cabinet meeting, crying, “He’s a good turkey and I don’t want him killed.” Unable to say no, Lincoln “pardoned” the bird. Many people think the turkey-pardoning tradition began with Harry S. Truman, who did receive a bird from the National Turkey Federation, but most likely ate it. From then on, presidents received turkeys for the holiday. John F. Kennedy didn’t eat his, but it was the press who brought the word “pardon” into it. Nixon sent at least some of his turkeys to petting zoos. Reagan used the word “pardon,” but only jokingly. It was president George H W Bush who officially said, “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy — he’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” [clip?]
Back to the dates. So we have a holiday that could happen whenever, but is set at the end of November because that’s what the last guy did. Enter Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1939, under pressure from retailers and in an effort to stimulate the economy at the end of the Great Depression, he lengthened the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving for the *second-to-last Thursday in November. Many people don’t start holiday shopping until after Thanksgiving, so when the final Thursday coincided with the last day of the month, as it would have in 1939, it cut the holiday shopping season short. Despite the change being only a single week, many people were not happy with the change, specifically or in general. They referred to it as Franksgiving. Grocers ran ads saying things like, “buy your turkey now, because who knows when Thanksgiving will be.” But it was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Two years later, in 1941, Congress responded by permanently establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday in the month.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. The Turducken, a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey, which has 5 times the calories of just a turkey, is not a new dish. Cooks in the Roman empire might make a telescoping dish called a farce, which starts with the smallest rodent and might go all the way up to an ox. The creator of the turducken, specifically, is up for debate, but many trace its roots to Louisiana-based chef and Dom Deluise impersonator Paul Prudhomme, who claimed to invent the dish.