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date: 21 April 2018


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America
Andrew F. Smith


On the last Thursday in November, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The holiday centers on a family dinner featuring turkey with stuffing or dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Many Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, and many believe that the day celebrates the beginnings of the United States.

Thanksgiving was observed in many communities during the seventeenth century. Thanksgiving proclamations have survived, most of which were issued by ministers and governors in various colonies, particularly in New England. These observances were usually selected in response to specific events, such as a military victory, a good harvest, or a providential rainfall, but no specific thanksgiving day was observed on an annual basis. A Puritan thanksgiving was a solemn religious day celebrated with attendance at church and prayer to God.

Not much is known about early Thanksgiving dinners, or even if there were any. Of all the hundreds of thanksgiving days observed in New England in the seventeenth century, only one church record in 1636 suggests the possibility of a feast. This account reports that after church services came “makeing merry.” Unfortunately no description has survived, but the presumption is that a feast of some sort took place. No further references to thanksgiving feasting over the next 150 years have been located.

From the eighteenth century only two descriptions of Thanksgiving dinners have survived. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress declared 18 December 1777 a day of thanksgiving in honor of the American military victory at Saratoga. A soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin, noted in his journal that each man was given rice and a tablespoonful of vinegar. A more sumptuous feast dates to 1784, but the description is not precise. It mentions drinking and eating in general and implies that pigs, geese, turkeys, or sheep were served.

In contrast to eighteenth-century records, a large number of descriptions of Thanksgiving dinners date to the nineteenth century. Two-course Thanksgiving meals were common. The first course consisted of roast turkey, chicken pie, ham, beef, sausage, and duck supplemented with sweet potatoes, yams, succotash, pickles, sweetbreads, turnips, and squash. The second course consisted of pies, tarts, puddings, creams, custards, jellies, floating islands, nuts, and dried fruit. Wine, rum, brandy, eggnog, punch, coffee, and tea were served with the meal.

Perhaps because of the significance of Thanksgiving, many Americans used the day to promote particular causes. In 1835William Alcott, a physician, wrote that he was opposed to the feast on moral grounds as well as for medical reasons. He called the Thanksgiving holiday a carnival loaded with luxuries. Alcott was particularly concerned because New Englanders were also beginning to celebrate Christmas, and he claimed that the two feasts had already merged into one long period of overindulgence that caused serious health problems. Alcott had another reason for opposing the Thanksgiving dinner—he had become a vegetarian in 1830 and later was one of the founders of the American Vegetarian Society. Although few Americans paid attention to Alcott or other vegetarians at the time, vegetarian concerns reemerged at the end of the century.

Reformers used Thanksgiving to highlight poverty in America. While many Americans were enjoying a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast, others were unable to partake in the festivities. Since before the Civil War, ministers, politicians, and social reformers have used the Thanksgiving holiday to point out economic disparity in America. In the early twenty-first century, this theme continues as newspapers and news broadcasts feature dinners for the homeless or poor on Thanksgiving Day.

Forefathers’ Day, the Pilgrims, and the “First Thanksgiving.”

Many influences contributed to transforming Thanksgiving from a mainly New England celebration into a national holiday. One major influence was migration. New Englanders migrated to other parts of the country in search of better farmland. The central valley of New York, for example, was largely settled by New Englanders, as was much of the Midwest. Transplanted New Englanders kept the Thanksgiving holiday alive in their new homes and urged their newly adopted communities to celebrate it as well.

By the early nineteenth century Thanksgiving had become part of popular culture. Musical compositions were performed, and Thanksgiving poems were published. Perhaps the most famous Thanksgiving poem was written by Lydia Maria Child, whose “The Boy's Thanksgiving Song” is better known to most Americans by its first line, “Over the river and thro’ the wood.”

None of the previously mentioned Thanksgiving proclamations, poems, or descriptions of feasts mentioned the first Thanksgiving or the Pilgrims. These were later additions to the rapidly evolving legend, and they sprang from a different tradition. On 22 December 1769, Plymouth luminaries celebrated the day on which the Separatists had arrived in the New World. This event was later commemorated as Forefathers’ Day. It gained enough support in Boston that in 1799 the Boston Sons of the Pilgrims sent out an invitation to its Forefathers’ Day dinner. This invitation contained the first located use of the word “Pilgrim” applied to the Separatists and Puritans.

One problem with Forefathers’ Day was its proximity to Christmas, which was not generally celebrated in New England until the mid-nineteenth century. As Christmas became more important, the celebration of Forefathers’ Day declined and Thanksgiving became a substitute. The first association between the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving appeared in print in 1841, when Alexander Young published a copy of a letter dated 11 December 1621, from Edward Winslow to a friend in England. The letter described a three-day event, the dates of which were not given. The letter was published the following year in England. It was not rediscovered until the 1820s. In his letter Winslow reported that after the crops were harvested, William Bradford sent four men to hunt fowl. Native Americans brought deer, and for three days they feasted.

In a footnote to the letter Young claimed that this was “the first Thanksgiving.” Young also cited Governor William Bradford's 1650 manuscript

ThanksgivingClick to view larger

Thanksgiving Imagery. Thanksgiving greeting.

Courtesy of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University

Of Plimoth Plantation, which had been lost for decades and was not published in its entirety until 1856. In this document Bradford told the story of Plymouth Plantation from 1620 to 1647. Bradford made no mention of the event described by Winslow, but he did report that in the fall of 1621 the settlers had accumulated wild turkeys, venison, cod, bass, waterfowl, and corn.

Whatever happened in 1621, the Puritans did not have special memories of it. They made no subsequent mention of the event and did not observe it in later years. The feast described by Winslow included no prayer, and it had many secular elements. The Puritans would not have considered it a day of Thanksgiving. Yet Young's allegation that the 1621 event was the first Thanksgiving was accepted by others writing histories of the Pilgrims.

Hale's Tale.

The first president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation was George Washington, who did so at the direction of Congress on 3 October 1789. The few presidents who subsequently issued Thanksgiving proclamations commemorated particular events, such as President James Madison's proclamation of celebration at the end of the War of 1812. Few presidents issued Thanksgiving proclamations thereafter.

The driving force behind making Thanksgiving a national holiday was Sarah Josepha Hale, who was born in 1788 in Newport, New Hampshire. She married David Hale, a lawyer, who died in 1822, leaving her with five children. Hale turned to writing to generate money, publishing her first book of verse in 1823. It is for her verse that Hale is remembered by many Americans. One of her poems was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Hale was among the first American women to have a novel published, and she was one of the first authors—male or female—to write a novel that addressed the problem of slavery. Northwood; a Tale of New England, which appeared in two volumes in 1827, compared life in New England with life in the South. An entire chapter of Northwood is devoted to a Thanksgiving dinner that includes roasted turkey with a savory stuffing, beef, pork, mutton, gravy, vegetables, goose, duck, chicken pie, pumpkin pie, pickles, preserves, cakes, sweetmeats, and fruits along with currant wine, cider, and ginger beer.

The publication of Northwood brought Hale fame, and she was asked to serve as the editor of American Ladies’ Magazine, a small magazine published in Boston. Louis A. Godey, who had launched Godey's Book in 1830, purchased American Ladies’ Magazine in 1836 and asked Hale to edit the combined magazine, named Godey's Lady's Book. Under Hale's management the magazine went from selling 10,000 copies in 1837 to selling 150,000 copies by 1860. Godey's Lady's Book had strict rules against publishing articles on political topics, a practice that was followed even during the Civil War. But this restriction did not prevent Hale in 1846 from launching a campaign in support of creating a national holiday for Thanksgiving.

For seventeen years Hale wrote annually to presidents, members of Congress, and every governor of every state and territory, requesting each to proclaim the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day. In an age before word processors and typewriters, this was a daunting task. Hale also wrote editorials in Godey's Lady's Book promoting Thanksgiving. Every year, she noted how many states had agreed to celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. Hale encouraged other magazines to join the quest of making Thanksgiving a national holiday, and many published Thanksgiving-related stories, poems, and illustrations.

Hale believed that Thanksgiving Day could pull the United States together while sectional differences, economic self-interest, and slavery were pulling the nation apart. During the 1850s the nation was particularly concerned with the slavery question. In 1852Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, inflamed the public in both North and South. Six months after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Hale revised and republished Northwood with a new subtitle: Life North and South; Showing the True Character of Both. Hale concluded that the way to end slavery was for every church in America to take up a collection on Thanksgiving Day for the purpose of purchasing slaves, educating them, and repatriating them to Africa. Whether or not churches purchased slaves on Thanksgiving Day, Hale hoped the day would serve as a national symbol that would bind people together and perhaps prevent dissolution of the country.

Hale was close to success in 1860, when she announced that Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving Day in thirty states and three territories. Despite Hale's hopes, Americans’ sitting down to dinner on the same day was not enough to prevent dissolution of the nation. During the Civil War Hale redoubled her efforts to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. A few months after the North's military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving. Every president since has proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.

Hale's pre-1865 letters and editorials promoting Thanksgiving Day made no mention of the Pilgrims or the first Thanksgiving feast. Neither did the hundreds of previously published local and state Thanksgiving Day proclamations. Neither did George Washington's, Abraham Lincoln's, or other presidential proclamations. And neither did newspaper or magazine articles. There were several good reasons for this. Jamestown had been settled before Plymouth, and colonists in Jamestown had observed days of Thanksgiving before Plymouth was settled. Indeed, Jamestown has a plaque proclaiming the site of the first Thanksgiving celebration. Several other locations make claims of being the place where the “first Thanksgiving” was celebrated in what would become the United States.

Hale made the connection between the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving holiday in an 1865 editorial in Godey's Lady's Book. This editorial was picked up by newspapers and by other magazines. By 1870 school textbooks contained the story of the “first Thanksgiving.” The linkage was salient enough by 1879 for the Reverend I. N. Tarbox to write a history of Thanksgiving in which he traced its origins to the Pilgrims. Tarbox was followed by others, the most important of whom was the Reverend W. DeLoss Love. Love systematically traced the Thanksgiving celebration from its origins as a religious observance and collected proclamations, many of which he published in his The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Love's massive compilation proved that there was no “first Thanksgiving.” But the other

ThanksgivingClick to view larger

Thanksgiving Monarch. An early-twentieth-century Thanksgiving postcard.

Collection of Alice Ross

works had clearly traced the Thanksgiving holiday to the Pilgrims, and the popular press was not far behind in making the connection.

By the late 1880s the concept of the Pilgrim-centered first Thanksgiving had blossomed in popular books. One version appeared in Jane Goodwin Austin's Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, which contained a full chapter on the “first Thanksgiving.” The drama of Austin's account appealed to others; many writers repeated her tale as fact, and it was adopted by many elementary and secondary school teachers. Thanksgiving plays were produced annually, and many schools offered special dinners based on Austin's fictional vision of life in Plymouth in 1621. This curriculum spawned a large body of children's literature focused on the Pilgrims and the “first Thanksgiving.” These myths were enshrined in books, magazines, and artworks during the twentieth century.

The rapid adoption of the Pilgrim-Thanksgiving myth had less to do with historical fact and more to do with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the United States. Most of the previous immigrants had come from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and smaller numbers from other western and northern European nations. In the 1880s this immigration pattern changed as peoples from southern and eastern Europe flooded into the United States. The pace of immigration exploded; in 1900, 9 million persons arrived in American cities. Because the immigrants came from many lands, the American public education system attempted to create a common American heritage. One curricular need was to create an easily understood history of America. The Pilgrims were an ideal symbol for America's beginning, so they became embedded in the nation's schools, as did the Thanksgiving feast.

The Thanksgiving Dinner.

Although Thanksgiving Day church services continued to be observed, the religious character of the observance gave way to the family dinner. By the late nineteenth century the traditional Thanksgiving dinner had been generally enshrined. At its core were foods considered to have originated in America. The central main course was turkey. Wild turkeys had been an important food for the colonists, so much so that wild turkeys disappeared from New England menus owing to near extinction. Soon after the establishment of Jamestown and Plymouth, however, domesticated turkeys were imported from England, but because of high cost, turkey was a feast dish in early America. By the late nineteenth century the price of turkeys had dropped, making the dish more affordable than other meats.

Other traditional components of the Thanksgiving meal are stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie. From the earliest European recipes, turkeys have been stuffed with truffles, chestnuts, sausage, pork back, mushrooms, oysters, breadcrumbs, and butter, to name a few variations. Cranberries also have been part of the Thanksgiving meal. Cranberries were gathered by early American colonists, particularly in New England and New Jersey. They became a part of Thanksgiving feasts by the early nineteenth century. White potatoes did not become important in New England until almost the end of the eighteenth century, and sweet potatoes did not become a fixture at the Thanksgiving dinner until late in the following century. Sweet pies were a British culinary legacy. Although pumpkins are of New World origin, the first recipes for pumpkin pie appeared in British cookbooks. From the earliest records pumpkin and other sweet pies were part of Thanksgiving festivities.

Challenges to Thanksgiving.

Not everyone has been happy with the turkey as the central focus of the Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps the most prominent vegetarian during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-Day Adventist who managed a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg was a dominant force in culinary Americana at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1894 his wife, Ella Kellogg, published a totally vegetarian menu for Thanksgiving. It featured “mock turkey,” made from nonmeat ingredients but shaped in the form of a turkey. More recently groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have used Thanksgiving to gain visibility for their beliefs. PETA has sponsored petitions and published leaflets encouraging a turkey-free Thanksgiving under the slogan “Give turkeys something to be thankful for!” To counteract the Butterball Thanksgiving talk line for answering questions about proper techniques of cooking turkey, PETA has encouraged its members to call the hotline and tell operators there is no proper way to kill and cook turkeys. Many vegetarians continue to celebrate Thanksgiving, substituting tofu-based products, such as “Tofurkey,” for the traditional meat dishes. This practice has been met with derision by some vegetarians, who believe that not even turkey substitutes should be used.

Historians have debunked the myths surrounding the Pilgrims and the “first Thanksgiving.” Businesses have commercialized Thanksgiving Day as the launch date for the Christmas season. Illustrators, filmmakers, and television producers have generated new Thanksgiving images. Immigrant groups have added new ingredients to the Thanksgiving culinary stew. Native Americans have proclaimed Thanksgiving Day the National Day of Mourning as a reminder of spiritual connection and in protest of oppression experienced. Vegetarians have campaigned against the consumption of turkey and other meat products. And those concerned with poor and homeless people have served special dinners for the needy. But the significance of Thanksgiving dinner has not faded.

[See alsoCranberries; Pies and Tarts; Potatoes; Turkey; Vegetarianism.]


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Andrew F. Smith