And Other Stories from the Original Harvest Table
By Tony Conway, CMP
Sometimes, our research takes us to unexpected places. Recently, a client asked us to prepare an authentic Thanksgiving dinner for a gathering of twelve. In order to get the details right, we schooled ourselves in everything Pilgrim. Through reading widely and surveying unspoiled miles of video footage, we learned that the first harvest dinner didn’t, in fact, include many of the dishes that we typically consider traditional Thanksgiving fare. We also discovered that we probably wouldn’t even be celebrating Thanksgiving Day if it weren’t for a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.
Until the mid-1800’s “Thanksgiving Day” was considered a religious holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection. In 1854, Sarah Josepha Hale, a savvy, trendsetting, editor of a widely-read women’s magazine, stumbled upon a letter written by a pilgrim named Edward Winslow. Winslow’s letter included details of the original harvest feast of 1621. Hale was immediately smitten by the story of how a group early colonial settlers and a tribe of Wampanoag Indians gathered peacefully in Plymouth, Massachusetts to feast on juicy wild fowl, venison, cornbread, and a bounty of fruits and vegetables.
Around the same time, a history book written by the mayor of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford, resurfaced. Bradford’s book also contained details describing the original harvest feast of the early settlers. The book was stolen by looters during the Revolutionary War and remained lost until around the same time that Sarah Hale’s interest in Colonial life piqued. Reading these two written accounts launched Hale into action.
Sarah Hale became determined to keep this part of history alive. Since she was a respected editor at a popular women’s magazine—she was just the person to make that happen. In her magazine, Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, buttery mashed potatoes, and fiery red cranberry sauce. In 1858, Hale even petitioned the president of the United States, Abe Lincoln, to declare Thanksgiving a national Holiday. Though Hale’s campaign cemented Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday, the Thanksgiving recipes she zealously wrote about were not entirely representative of the feast of 1621.
Though turkey is the main menu item that comes to mind when many of us think of Thanksgiving dinner—it may not have actually been served at the original harvest feast of 1621. We do know that some type of “wild fowl” was served; however, “wild turkey” was not named in either of the first hand written accounts. It is more probable that the “wild fowl” brought back by the four pilgrims sent out to hunt for the harvest day celebration were seasonal waterfowl such as duck, geese, and cranes. We know for sure that venison was named as a meat (in fact, King Massasoit of the Wampanoag Indians presented five deer to the Pilgrims as a harvest gift). Having said that, wild turkey may have indeed been a dish at the harvest feast of 1621, we just have no written record of it.