|Kathy Rudder, “Colonial Foodways Artisan” for Plimoth Plantation|
Kathy Rudder, an historical interpreter at Plimoth Plantation, (Plymouth, Massachusetts) visited WBUR yesterday evening to talk with Karen Given of WBUR's Only a Game and an audience of several hundred about the first Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving that is as far away from today's celebration as Europe is from North America.
Rudder, a foodways artisan and historical interpreter at Plimoth Plantation, came attired in the simple dress of the time and mingled with the audience as they test-tasted the brews (Mayflower Ale, Autumn Wheat, IPA India Pale Ale, and Porter) brewed by the Mayflower Brewing Company and bottled in Plymouth, Massachusetts) and the tasty tidbits of blue cheese and cheddar made by the Plymouth Cheese Company of Plymouth, Vermont, (yes, Plymouth, Vermont), freshly prepared Johnny Cake (small pancakes made with corn meal, flour and real tidbits of corn), caramelized onion souffle spread on crackers, squash spread on crackers, and for the tee-totalers, coffee -- both de-caf and high test.
According to Rudder, we have very little information about that first thanksgiving. For the pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a concept -- a day of fasting and prayer, not a harvest feast, though as the Pilgrims became more established, harvest feasts were not uncommon. Rudder noted that the Pilgrims would not have called that feast a thanksgiving, as thanksgiving was prayer. [By the mid-17th century, the settlers were established enough to be able to feast at harvest time.]
Did the Pilgrims have pumpkin pie at their first harvest feast? Pumpkin definitely, but pie, probably not, as wheat did not grow well and because maize corn has no gluten, it would have been impossible to create a pie crust. Sugar, as well, was a rarity; early on there was no maple syrup or honey for sweetening. Perhaps they had stewed pumpkin or stewed squash (mashed into a paste), stewed turnips, cranberries (but again, with no sugar). The first recording of sugar in Plymouth was in 1627. They may have cooked cranberries with duck or goose, or spit roasted a turkey with root vegetables such as parsnips, semp (grits - ground dried corn), boiling it with herbs to be savory, not sweet. Pancakes, duck, goose . . . perhaps the first thanksgiving had a tableful of fowl, as meat was most prevalent. One pot meals were typical -- Turkey pottage with onions, turkey drippings, semp, herbs, root vegetables (a perfect solution for "leftovers", to use a contemporary concept). Or a fricasee, boiling the leavings, then frying them and serving with a sauce of egg yolk & vinegar or bear juice. Although fish and shellfish were available year round, fish was not mentioned in the diaries as a celebratory food. In the early days, the Pilgrims were drinking water, which is probably why so many died in those first years. They didn't have beer or tea or coffee or chocolate. (Actually not in England either. The Dutch & Spanish had it, but it hadn't reached England yet).
George Washington declared the first day of thanksgiving in 1789 as a day of fasting and prayer. Abraham Lincoln, in gratitude for a the victory at Gettysburg in 1863, declared a thanksgiving of fasting to be the 4th Thursday of every November. Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, wrote to five presidents to get them to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday in an effort to bring the country together. (At the time, William Bradford's manuscript had just been uncovered.)
Turkey on Thanksgiving was a regionalism until the late 1940's when the National Turkey Federation came into being. (Rudder made reference to the Ostrich Thanksgiving celebrated on radio by Jack Benny in the 1939. You can still hear it on You-Tube.)
Rudder made little mention of the Natives except to say that at the first "harvest feast" were 53 colonists and (among others) 90 natives carrying many deer.
When asked by Marash Girl if Native Americans still observe a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Rudder simply answered, "Yes."