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Understanding Thanksgiving - History and Food Ideas

Updated on August 2, 2016

I'm a Brit and my wonderful American friend and neighbour, Fern, shows me a lot I don't know about American culture. From this side of the Pond, Thanksgiving seems to give a lot of what we could do with over here - unity and family time, but largely unadulterated by the commercialism of Christmas. There's no British equivalent so it was interesting to look a little at the history of something that has captured the heart of America for generations.

Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians
Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians | Source

The history of Thanksgiving

The harvest feast of 1621 saw the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians share a meal probably for the first time. This set the scene for other colonies and States to celebrate at that time of year for the next 200 years.

This symbol of peace and cooperation between the colonists and Indians follows a long tradition in many cultures of giving thanks for a successful crop and sustaining harvest of food, so it was something the 2 cultures had in common.

Perhaps this is why, with all our respective religious festivals throughout the year, Thanksgiving crosses cultural divides.

In 1789 President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as a "Day of Publick Thanksgivin" - the first time Thanksgiving was celebrated under the new Constitution. Under subsequent presidents the dates and months of Thanksgiving varied and it wasn't until Abraham Lincoln's 1863 decree that Thanksgiving was regularly commemorated each year on the last Thursday of November.

There were a few date hiccups in the intervening years as some States celebrated one date and others another, until in 1941, to end any confusion, another congressional declaration designated the 4th Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving holiday.

The first pilgrim Thanksgiving

Celebrating with the pilgrims

But what would have the original pilgrims of 1621 have been eating at their first Thanksgiving meals?

It's unlikely that pumpkin pie was on the menu even though pumpkins were available! The other vegetables they had included beans, peas, lettuce, radishes, leeks, onions and carrots. Fruits would have been mainly plums and grapes.

The meats available to the settlers would have been wild turkey, duck, goose, crane, swan, seal and venison. And there would have been cod, eel, clams and lobster, all of which could be seasoned with salt, pepper, oil, liverwort, herbs and dried currants.

If we had sat down to eat with the pilgrims we would have quite a different experience to today. There were no forks and they would have used only spoons, knives and their fingers to eat with.

And where we sample everything that the cook has prepared for us, in the 17th century they only ate what was nearest and the best food was placed nearest the most important guests/householders.

There were no individual courses either. Savoury and sweet dishes were on the table at the same time and they ate what they chose.

Meat was the main player in the feast, with vegetables playing a minor role. I would have been roasted over an open fire and turned manually so that was all cooked evenly.

Today we would regard the meal as fatty and unhealthy but remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries they were far more physically active - building homes, farming the land, walking or riding everywhere. Heart disease and obesity are modern diseases and our forebears were more worried about plague and poxes.

What now?

So this November, as you sit with family and friends to give thanks, think about how far America has come but how she still holds the same principles dear.

If you're looking for variety this year, or you’re a foreigner like me and have no idea where to start, here are a few recipes that might help.

A few new recipes to try

New side dishes


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    • Temirah profile image

      Temirah 6 years ago

      Hey Reynold Jay - thanks for the thumbs up and I'm glad you like the hub, even if it was out of season!

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 6 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      OK then--let's skip the fourth and move directly to Thanksgiving! PAss the gravy please! Welcome to HUB writing. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and Useful.” I'm now your fan! RJ

    • Temirah profile image

      Temirah 6 years ago

      Happy 4th of July! I was getting in there early with Thanksgiving! Fern is a fabulous cook (and I'm hopeless!) so she's a wonderful friend to have for a lot of reasons.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for the recipes! There is a movement to downplay Thanksgiving in our country, but the truths behind the celebration as well as the event itself are amazing. How nice that you and Fern are able to share info about your countries together! Soon, you'll have to share with us some of the new British foods she is learning about. :)

      Neat hub to find on the 4th of July!


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