I would have to try really, really hard to sum up the weirdness surrounding our Thanksgiving holiday better than this essay I serendipitously found in a book about preserving seasonal harvests.
All the best storylines are present: Fake News, Propaganda, Revisionist History in School, Consumerism, Branding, and sheer force of will by a focused, relentless American. Sarah Josepha Hale, had she been born in 1988 instead of 1788, would very likely have been one of the first social media Influencers.
But the best part? It all works out in the end, and proves that there isn’t much that can’t be smoothed over with a well-branded and enthusiastically prepared food holiday. So, turn off the media, and tuck in.
Talking Turkey:The Literary Origins of the Thanksgiving Meal
The story of Thanksgiving is a fiction, or at least it is as I learned it in elementary school one November Day back in the seventies, when we cut out construction paper turkeys, brass-buckle shoes, and feathered headdresses.That tale of Pilgrims being saved from starvation in 1621 by kindly Indians bearing gifts has little basis in the historical record, according to food historian Andrew F. Smith, whose revisionist research appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the journal Gastronomica. The reality is that Thanksgiving was invented by a sentimental novelist in 1846 and enshrined as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln as a means to soothe national division after the Civil War.
The history of thanksgiving – lowercase “t” began soon after the grave Puritans arrived on the Mayflower and established Plimoth Plantation in 1620. They issued all sorts of thanksgiving proclamations in observance of “a military victory, a good harvest, or a providential rainfall,” says Smith, but these were solemn days of prayer, not sumptuous meals.
A letter dated December 1621 is often cited as evidence of the first Thanksgiving – capital “T” – because it describes a feast of wild fowl eaten with Native American King Massasoit. The letter’s purpose makes it suspect, however, because it was sent to England to attract more settlers. Less a cornerstone document of American’s multicultural past, suggests Smith, it might be viewed by a jaundiced eye as a hyped-up real-estate advertisement meant to convince wary Englishmen that the New World natives were friendly. (They weren’t for long: King Massosoit’s son Metacom, known to the English as Philip, later led the so-called King Philip’s War against Plymouth Colony.)
Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, says Smith, “thanksgving remained an opional local celebration held at different times in response to specific circumstances.”Only on a few occasions did it assume a national character, as when George Washington marked a day to celebrate the new Constitution, and President James Madison commemorated the end of the War of 1812.
Then along came Sarah Josepha Hale, born in 1788. The energetic writer is best remembered for her verse “Mary Had A Little Lamb” but she rose to prominence in 1827 with the publication of a novel, Northwood; a Tale of New England, which devoted a chapter to Thanksgiving. In it, Hale worked up the now familiar spread: roast turkey with stuffing, pumpkin pie; and plates of pickles, preserves… and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate.“
Starting in 1846, Hale devoted herself to a tireless lobbying campaign to establish Thanksgiving as an annual holiday.“Hale believed that Thanksgiving could pull the United States together as regional differences, economic self-interest, and slavery tore the nation apart,” writes Smith.That her efforts were temporarily interrupted by the Civil War only underscored Hale’s great theme of the need for a shared feast to foster national reconciliation.She leveraged her connections until she managed to write President Lincold directly, and somehow she persuaded him to join her cause.In 1863, a few months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November the third national holiday, after Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday.
Political leaders throughout history have seized upon inspiring narratives to promote their agendas – from the Virgin Queen and le Roi Soleil to the Kennedy Camelot and Regan’s “morning in America”: – and for Lincoln’s purposes, situating America’s original harvst feast in a multicultural Peaceable Kingdom provided an inflection point for renewal after the Civil War.The real question is why it stuck.
Perhaps because Hale’s Thanksgiving menu may have been a fantasy, but it did, almost by chance, summarize the facts of the American food experience. Guy Davenport writes:
“The honey bee came over with the settlers of New England, along with the apple tree and the pear.Two enormous ecologies blended in the New World, where pumpkin, maize, persimmon, melon, and other native vegetables changed the European palate.“
The centerpieces of Hale’s menu, which is everyone’s now, are roast turkey and pumpkin pie. Both are North American species, and they may have been as strange to the Pilgrims as they are familiar to us. Thanksgiving makes us all celebrate how much the nation’s founding depended on the continent’s aboriginal bounty and how profoudly our mainstream food culture has been enriched by multicultureal influences derived from Native American peoples, African slaves, and countless later waves of immigrants.
The American story is one of optimism and adaptability, and American food has always been joyfully opportunistic, pulling ingredients from multiple “enormous ecologies.” Hale’s version of Thanksgiving and all its manifestations, including construction paper stagings of a Pilgrim-Indian sitdown, have endured because, like all myth, it is true, even if it isn’t accurate.
Exerpt from Saving the Season by Kevin West, p 386-7 @2013
Anyway, I hope you navigate this holiday and manage to find some joy, and some resolve. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days to spend outside, so maybe instead of the usual driving around to hit all the gatherings, a hike outside will bring a different type of connection instead?