thanksgiving dinner webWhile no records exist of the exact bill of fare, the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted in his journal that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the three-day event. Wild—but not domestic—turkey was indeed plentiful in the region and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans.

But it is just as likely that the fowling party returned with other birds we know the colonists regularly consumed, such as ducks, geese and swans. Instead of bread-based stuffing, herbs, onions or nuts might have been added to the birds for extra flavor.

Turkey or no turkey, the first Thanksgiving’s attendees almost certainly got their fill of meat. Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag guests arrived with an offering of five deer. Culinary historians speculate that the deer was roasted on a spit over a smoldering fire and that the colonists might have used some of the venison to whip up a hearty stew.

The 1621 Thanksgiving celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first autumn harvest, so it is likely that the colonists feasted on the bounty they had reaped with the help of their Native American neighbors. Local vegetables that likely appeared on the table include onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots and perhaps peas. Corn, which records show was plentiful at the first harvest, might also have been served, but not in the way most people enjoy it now. In those days, the corn would have been removed from the cob and turned into cornmeal, which was then boiled and pounded into a thick corn mush or porridge that was occasionally sweetened with molasses.

The Presidential Pardon
A president took pity on a gifted bird in 1963 when John F. Kennedy spared the life of a mammoth 55-pound white turkey wearing a sign around its neck—clearly not of its own volition—that read “Good Eating, Mr. President!” “We’ll just let this one grow,” Kennedy said with a grin. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” As the president left the Rose Garden on November 19, 1963, the turkey prepared for its return to a California farm while Kennedy finalized preparations for his fateful trip to Dallas three days later.

Although newspapers in 1963 reported that “Merciful President Pardons Turkey,” the first president to actually use the word “pardon” at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation may have been Ronald Reagan, albeit as a quip. During the throes of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, Reagan sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether he planned to pardon any of his aides accused of wrongdoing. When then asked about the fate of the 55-pound turkey he was just given, Reagan joked, “I’ll pardon him.”

For many years, the freed turkeys spent their remaining months at the ironically named Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. Between 2005 and 2009, they were sent to Disneyland and Walt Disney World where they served as grand marshals in the theme parks’ annual Thanksgiving parades. From 2010 to 2013, the turkeys made the short trip from the White House to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and this year they will be transferred to Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, to live out their last days as free birds.

Few of our festival foods can claim deeper American roots than pumpkins, which were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 B.C. and were one of the earliest foods the first European explorers brought back from the New World. The orange gourds’ first mention in Europe dates to 1536, and within a few decades they were grown regularly in England, where they were called “pumpions,” after the French “pompon,” a reference to their rounded form.

By the early 18th century pumpkin pie had earned a place at the table, as Thanksgiving became an important New England regional holiday.

After the Civil War, Thanksgiving—and with it, pumpkin pie—extended its national reach, bolstered by write-ups in women’s magazines like the one that Hale edited. In 1929 Libby’s meat-canning company of Chicago introduced a line of canned pumpkin that soon became a Thanksgiving fixture in its own right, replacing the need for roasting and straining one’s own squash.

Thanksgiving and Football
When professional football leagues first caught on around the turn of the century, they immediately adopted the Thanksgiving Day tradition. Many saved the holiday for their title games or other big matchups, but when the National Football League was founded in 1920, it began hosting as many as six Thanksgiving contests each year. Today, the NFL holds three Thanksgiving games each November, two of which always feature the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.

So the Thanksgiving feast has a long and interesting history. There is nothing more American than the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is a time to spend with family and loved ones. It is a time to reflect and to be thankful for what we have - whether it be in material form or, more importantly, in the form of our relationships with those that surround us.

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