Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. It originated as a harvest festival. Thanksgiving has been celebrated nationally on and off since 1789, with a proclamation by George Washington after a request by Congress.Thomas Jefferson chose not to observe the holiday, and its celebration was intermittent until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, when Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1863, during the American Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the date was changed between 1939 and 1941 amid significant controversy. From 1942 onwards, Thanksgiving has been proclaimed by Congress as being on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving is regarded as being the beginning of the fall–winter holiday season, along with Christmas and the New Year, in American culture.
The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in October 1621.Very little is known about the 1621 event in Plymouth. This feast lasted three days, and—as accounted by attendees Edward Winslow and William Bradford—it was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 English Colonists.
The only eyewitness account of the event are reprinted below:
“And God be praised we had a good increase… 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. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986. p 82
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which is place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation: S.E. Morison, ed. Knopf. N.Y., 1952. p 90
The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
These side dishes served alongside a beautifully roasted turkey reflects a Colonial-inspired Thanksgiving menu that weaves together indigenous and Old World ingredients and traditions into a uniquely American feast.
SAGE AND HONEY SKILLET CORNBREAD
With the help of Squanto and Wampanoag tribe, corn was one of the first crops the settlers learned how to grow and soon cornmeal became a diet staple and was used for making johnnycakes, porridges, and more. The difficulty of growing wheat in the northern colonies meant that other breads were a rare luxury, but there was always cornbread.
1 1/4 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup whole milk
1 cup low-fat buttermilk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup honey
Preheat oven to 425º F. Heat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in oven until hot, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together cornmeal, flour, sugar, sage, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Melt 1 stick butter, and whisk together with milk, buttermilk, eggs, and honey. Whisk milk mixture into cornmeal mixture until just combined.
Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Remove skillet from oven, add remaining tablespoon butter, and swirl to coat. Pour in batter, and bake until cornbread is golden, 20 to 23 minutes. Let cool at least 30 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Native to North America, pumpkins are one of the oldest domesticated plants, having been used as early as 7,500 to 5,000 BC. As a cultivar of a squash plant, pumpkins have a round, smooth, slightly ribbed skin, and most often appear deep yellow to orange in coloration. The original pumpkins were small and hard with a bitter flavor. Rather than using their nutritional and readily available seeds, pre-Columbian indigenous tribes along the East Coast and the Mid-Atlantic grew pumpkins for their flesh. Because of their solid, thick flesh, pumpkins served as an ideal food source for storing during cold weather and in times of scarcity. Indigenous cooks would often roast them whole in the ashes of a smoldering fire and then crack the pumpkin open to scoop out the pulp from the shells, adding honey or maple syrup and cooked again in the fire in a clay vessel. One of the first American pumpkin recipes was included in John Josselyn’s “New-England’s Rarities Discovered”, published in the early 1670’s. The recipe was for a side dish made from diced ripe pumpkin that had been cooked down in a pot over the course of a day. Once the pumpkin was cooked, butter and spices were added, much like the recipes for mashed squash or sweet potatoes seen today.
1 small whole pumpkin, 6 to 8 pounds
1/4 cup apple cider
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup melted butter
Preheat the oven to at 350 ° F.
Wash the pumpkin, removing any soil; dry with paper towels
Place the pumpkin on a baking sheet and place the entire pumpkin in the oven. Bake for about 2 hours. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Using a chef’s knife, cut the baked pumpkin in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds from inside; remove the seeds and save for another used if desired. Spread the pulp into am 8 x 8- inch casserole dish.
Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour over the pumpkin. Place the casserole in the oven and bake for another 35 minutes. Serve warm.
ROASTED DELICATA SQUASHES AND LADY APPLES
Photo Credit: Anna Williams, 2012.
In Colonial America, English settlers were introduced to the pumpkin by Native American tribes. For the most part, “pumpkin” (actually, “pompion” or “pompkin”) was the catch-all word for squashes of all sorts. In this sweet and savory side dish, the “pompions” are in the form of pretty Delicata squashes. The savory kick comes from slab bacon, an acknowledgement to the fact that pigs were introduced by the Spanish conquistadors, thrived in the New World and pork was essential component of the Colonists’ diets.
2 delicata squashes (1 1/2 pounds total), cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices,
10 lady apples (1 1/2 pounds), cut in half
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons light-brown sugar
6 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices, then cut crosswise into
lardons (1/2 inch wide)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Preheat oven to 400 ºF. Toss together squashes, apples, oil, sugar, bacon, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; season with pepper. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet, and roast until golden on bottom, about 50 minutes. Flip squashes and apples over, and roast until tender, about 5 minutes more. Sprinkle thyme over mixture, and serve immediately.
CRANBERRY RELISH WITH PEARL ONIONS
Native Americans had been growing and eating cranberries long before the Pilgrims arrived, but the first recorded instance of cooking them into a sweetened sauce to serve with meat shows up in the 1670s.
Yields 2 1/4 cups
21 white pearl onions
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup red-wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook onions 2 minutes, then transfer to a bowl of ice water. Drain. Peel onions, and cut in half. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Cover, and cook over medium-low heat until cranberries burst and onions are tender, about 40 minutes.
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