Another year, another honey-hued turkey gracing the dining room table surrounded by family and sounds of football. Thanksgiving is here again.
But is our annual tradition really in honor of that Harvest Festival in 1621? Not as much as you might think. For one, turkey was not the center of awe during that three-day gathering. The guests' delight was reserved for the five deer, brought to the table by the Wampanoag braves. Some historians and ethnographers aren't sure turkey was even served! (There is only one written account of the First Thanksgiving, and turkey isn't even mentioned!) Duck was likely the bird of choice back then, and perhaps even heath hen, a sumptuous grouse that was quite plentiful around Plymouth, though sadly extinct today.
While we never see fish on the Thanksgiving table, eel and quahogs were also believed to be principle comestibles shared among the Pilgrims and Native Americans. As were cabbage and beans.
Maybe we Americans have the Thanksgiving tradition all wrong. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag were celebrating the bounty of food from their immediate surrounds. And relishing in the company of relative strangers...folks with very different ways and views of the world. Sure, there was family. But it was really about the great things that could be accomplished by sharing and working together with your community brethren.
Today, we only share with family, watch a pigskin tossed around a grid-iron, and sit down to a meal we think mimics the dishes those Pilgrims and Indians ate almost 400 years ago. Yet we are not even close.
Upon closer examination, the First Thanksgiving wasn't about celebrating one particular dish (like we do with roast turkey) but a bountiful harvest of food, most of which was naturally provided by the landscape girdling their dinner tables. Those dinner guests were the original locavores, celebrating and sharing the abundance of food supplied by the lands of Plymouth...and the peaceful cohabitation of two very different peoples.
Perhaps a more traditional way to celebrate Thanksgiving is to do what the Pilgrims and Native Americans did: prepare feasts with foods indigenous to our locale, and share them with our fellow townsfolk. Such an evolution of our revered tradition provides mouth-watering reason to restore the original impetus for giving thanks to the places we call home.
So, in Seattle, why not consider adorning your table with black-tail deer, geoducks, and Olympia oysters? And in Columbus, Ohio, meals of walleye and sunchokes with desserts of chilled pawpaw would be a more traditional manner to honor the 1621 celebration. Bring back the eel on the Bostonians' table. Will elk and antelope ever earn their rightful place at a Denver feast?
And in Duluth, that modest upper Midwestern city on the westernmost shores of Lake Superior, I can think of nothing more deserving of a Great Lakes thanksgiving feast then lake trout, serviceberry sauce with roasted butternut breads and, wild rice.
Let's give thanks for the diversity of delectable ingredients the landscape of our community provides, while celebrating the diversity of people that helped make America America.