The mere thought of Thanksgiving Day invokes visions of a beautiful laid out table, covered with linen, adorned by china, and delicious foot. This family tradition, started so long ago, continues down the generations, with no end in sight for the future generations to come. It is a purely American holiday, that causes us to pause and acknowledge how truly thankful we should be.
Through the years, the holiday has refined itself to what it is today. Foods are basically the same as they were then, totally familiar to us.
Many pioneers who came to American shores would be surprised by the “new goods” we now deem as part of our Thanksgiving table. These pioneers came from many lands, mostly originating at the beginning from Europe: the English, who came to Virginia in 1607, and the New England in 1620; the Dutch, who settled in New York in 1623; the Finns and Swedes in Delaware in the 1620’s; the English Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1681; and the Germans also in Pennsylvania about 1690.
These people beheld a wilderness of game animals which include: deer, moose, elk, rabbits and squirrels. Food teemed from the eastern shores, and fruits, such as mulberries, cherries, grapes and walnuts were there for the taking.
Indeed, America was land of plenty – if you knew which plants were safe to eat and if you could preserve them for when the winds blew cold. Many plants were unfamiliar to the Europeans. Only with the help of the Native Americans who lived upon the land, did the settlers survive. The Indians introduced lima beans, peppers, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes and corn into the settlers diet of cabbage, parsnips and herbs.
Corn was the crucial vegetable, which could be roasted, boiled, made into pudding and bread. Indians taught the settlers to grow beans up cornstalks, thereby saving precious land and space. These vegetables, harvested and cooked together, made a popular dish of succotash.
When we think of proper table manners at the Thanksgiving meal, many orderly images come to mind. For the settlers, however, the time to sit down and give thanks was too fleeting – there was just too much to be done. A table was usually made from simple planks of wood. Sometimes there weren’t any chairs! As a result, the family members literally “ate and ran”.
Dinnerware was hard to come by. Sometimes spoons were carved out of wood. More creative spoons were made from seashells and walnut shells attached with twig handles. Pewter came later and was expensive. Forks were virtually unknown until the mid 1700’s.
The most common way to eat food was from a trencher-square blocks of wood in which bowls had been hollowed out of on one side. The other side was usually flat, so that a piece of pie could be eaten upon it. One side had the main course, and “flip” the other side held dessert.
Some trenchers didn’t even get this fancy. Some families used stale bread instead of wood. The food, once poured on the bread, could be entirely consumed. No dish washing!
Cups were usually shared around a table. Made of wood and called a ‘noggin,” the cup usually contained cider or beer.
No dainty cleanliness for these early folks. Without many forks or spoons, the fingers were the tools of choice.
One common necessity did exist then as it does today when eating the Thanksgiving meal – napkins! Upon laps and tied around necks, the sight is the same. As time went on, tables were covered with cloths, and wooden utensils gave way to china and glassware.
Although many types of poultry could be found in the New World, only one is truly associated with Thanksgiving Day: the turkey. Benjamin Franklin deemed the turkey such a noble bird that he wanted it to be the national bird of America, rather than the eagle! Needless to say, the eagle won out.
Turkeys in colonial days could be huge: some weighed over 30 pounds! The wild birds often traveled in flocks numbering over a hundred or more. In contrast to today’s domesticated turkey, the wild turkey had a beautiful purple and bronze colored plummage. No doubt the feathers were greatly prized as well.
Some foods, as said before, were unfamiliar to new settlers to America. Sweet potatoes (actually roots) and squash, which are often included on the Thanksgiving Day table, are American. Potatoes (white), a wonderful accompaniment, were introduced from overseas in the 1700’s. Tomatoes which are generously tossed into salads, were thought to be poisonous and people refused to eat them until after the American Revolution.
What shall you serve at your Thanksgiving table this year? With so many people from different backgrounds in America, the choices are endless. Each family adds its own special touch to the holiday. Still, the main message of the holiday is Thanksgiving, a moment to gather with family and friends in the busy turning of life – just to give thanks for what we have and who we are – AMERICANS!