Some of us were sitting by a fire the other evening knitting Christmas bells and picking out pecans and we started talking about the first Thanksgiving. We remembered what a hard year that had been for the pilgrims. Because of their faith in Jesus Christ and their desire to worship Him freely, they had left behind all that was familiar to them and here they were in a new place with crude houses, no carriages, no friends down the street, and almost no food.
Then we remembered the Indians.
The colonists were riddled with disease and illness as they faced the elements of their new place. Half of them died the first six months, many before they ever disembarked from the Mayflower. Sometimes there were only six or seven able to be up and take care of the sick. But the ones who survived until the fall of 1621, having been helped by a few Indians, harvested a crop, learned how to peel mussels off rocks at the shore and how to recognize good things to eat in the forest.
So, recognizing how blessed by God these few were, William Bradford, their governor, called them together and announced they would have a three day celebration to show their gratitude. They would thank God for the blessings of life and freedom and food. The feast was attended by the scrappy thirty to fifty colonists (reports vary) and ninety Wampanoag Indians. The Indians, while camping at the feast, went out hunting and provided five deer for the occasion (a noble contribution, I’d say!).
After our fireside conversation, I began thinking about the foods the pilgrims might have discovered in the deep dark woods.
I’m thinking about the harvest of the woods we could find in Georgia. There were grapes if you could get to them. Sometimes the vines twisted high, very high, in the trees and someone had to shimmy up and shake the grapes down for pickers below. There were beautiful greenish scuppernongs turning beige if they were ripe. There were the larger muscadines, dark purple and so sweet it’s a wonder any of them arrived at the house in our bucket. In South Georgia I learned those were called bullises and that South Georgia cooks also made grape hull pies as my mother did. Then there were fox grapes. Now those were some sour grapes, tiny and sour! They grew in clusters on vines that wrapped around sweetgum, dogwood, whatever. Mamma didn’t turn down much, but she said we could have the fox grapes. We played a game to see who could eat the most before puckering up.
Speaking of puckering, I wonder if the colonists found persimmons in their new place. Maybe persimmons are more abundant in the south. Anyway, how beautiful they are, the color of apricots mixed with a little orange maybe? And so delicious when they’re mushy ripe or made into pudding. But don’t bite into one when it’s firm and glistening. It will turn your mouth wrong side out! I’ve never heard that the pilgrims had possum at their feast so maybe there were no persimmons either, because those two seem to thrive together. (A possum in a persimmon tree with a hound dog and two boys on the ground and the moon at full is a story about to happen.)
Hickory nuts were abundant some years but they were almost impossible to extract from the very hard shells. I guess you’d have to be as hungry as the pilgrims before you’d resort to hickory nuts. But squirrels like them. And I imagine the pilgrims could really dig in to a good squirrel stew–on days when visitors hadn’t contributed venison so graciously.
Now we sometimes call Thanksgiving “Turkey Day.” The pilgrims could have had turkey at their feast. There were plenty of wild turkeys like the gaggle of turkeys Charles observed recently ambling along a slow country road. He stopped his truck and delayed his trip to relieve a bloated cow long enough to watch the seven or eight turkeys. But the pilgrims didn’t know yet about “Turkey Day.” So they might have had pheasant or ducks or even swan. William Bradford did send four men on a fowling expedition so they must have had fowl of some kind.
The Indians, particularly Squanto who could speak English because he’d been kidnapped to England and returned, helped the pilgrims know what they could grow, how to fish, and how to hunt. What might have been in their garden that first year? According to Edward Winslow whose journal gives us a record of that first Thanksgiving, the peas didn’t do well, dried in the bloom, but turnips grew and onions and corn and pumpkins, even spinach. They would have had little or no flour or sugar left so they couldn’t make pies. One speculator thinks they cut a pumpkin in half and roasted it.
They had, no doubt, a bountiful feast. Whatever they had was far better than they enjoyed every day. They were grateful and they celebrated for three days. The children’s revised textbooks, chronicling the event, say the pilgrims were thankful but do not add to Whom they were thankful. But Edward Winslow was an eye witness and he said that the one true living God was the One they worshipped.
We sit in our comfortable houses enjoying the warmth and glow of gas logs and the scents of pumpkin pies, cornbread dressing and a turkey roasting. I think about the colonists and the Indians who had no idea we would still be commemorating that day 400 years later. They didn’t know that more than a hundred years later a president named Abraham Lincoln would pronounce a day of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. They set the stage for us. They showed us that grateful people are survivors. Grateful people are joyful people. The more hardships there are, the more room for gratitude.
Have a wonderful feast even if it’s not straight from the forest and field.