Thanksgiving History and Food Traditions

For one reason or another – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and whoever else might have shown up – I have in the back of my mind a nearly-constant conversation about food and food traditions this time every year.

It all moved to the front of my mind as we opened our Checkerboard Partnership at the Swauk-Teanaway Grange a bit over a week ago. The Partnership is working to create a community forest of land around and near Roslyn in the Upper County. That meeting of a couple dozen active citizens, officials, agencies, businesses and organizations began with self-introductions and an “ice-breaker” question.

The question each was to answer was something to the effect of “What food must be a part of your Thanksgiving dinner celebration?” While several of us voted for turkey and cranberry sauce or dressing or pies or whatever, the most popular response was “mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Out of that brief go-round, came a bit of conjuring with the question of how far, or not, we have come since that fall, 1621, feast at Plymouth Colony. That is the harvest meal which we recognize as the first “Thanksgiving” in what became the USA. It is pretty easy to find a summary of the foods eaten on that day, but I like the piece Megan Gambino wrote for on Nov. 21st of 2011. (No mashed potatoes and gravy, by the way.)

Wildfowl (waterfowl, grouse, turkey), shellfish, squash (pumpkins), along with corn – used for bread and porridge – and venison were on that early menu. Ms. Gambino made note of the two surviving references to that harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony. One was a letter to a friend in England, written by Edward Winslow: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.” The governor – William Bradford – noted that “…besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. …[N]ow since harvest, Indian corn.”

[Find more about that first celebration (good family then-and-now discussion, actually) at]

Following that first feast, Thanksgiving became an annual custom throughout New England. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the Patriot victory at Saratoga. President George Washington, in 1779, became the first president to proclaim the holiday – Thursday, November 26 – to be a day of national thanksgiving for the U.S. Constitution. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national celebration on the last Thursday of November. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved it up a week, but recanted after much protest. On November 26, 1941, he signed a bill into law officially making the fourth Thursday in November the national holiday of Thanksgiving Day.

It occurs to me that my family and I have enjoyed any number of Thanksgiving traditions reminiscent of that 1621 feast. Venison and gamebirds have regularly accompanied our turkey and stuffing centerpiece. Admittedly, our food is prepared differently than the boiling and fire roasting common in those earliest days, and they certainly did not have pies (no wheat flour and crusts), but there are nods we all make to that first feast. And, I think we still find a moment to be thankful for the “harvest” of the gifts that make our lives whole.

Consider the life value of being thankful for what we have – and celebrating the pleasure of food. A couple decades back, psychologist Paul Rozen and some of his grad students at the University of Pennsylvania, interviewed over a thousand people (primarily in America and France) about food. What they found suggested that the better French health (even with a much richer diet) may have had a lot to do with state of mind. They found that the French associated eating with pleasure, while Americans tended to associate eating with health and nutrition – and fretting.

This idea of gratitude, joy, and health from eating is not new. Julia Child often spoke of health and joyful eating. Several of my Yakama and Nez Perce friends speak of prayer over food, to be joyfully consumed, as making the food “medicine.” I like praying over the plants and animals which honor me with the gifts of their flesh.

So, here’s to giving thanks for blessings and traditions. Here’s to food made medicine with gratitude and prayer. Here’s to your good health from joyfully consuming gifts of the earth.

May your traditions warm and sustain you through the coming season. Happy holidays.


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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