Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.
Just days till Thanksgiving as of this writing. We had our first snow already, which seems early compared to recent years. Nature may throw us a curve or two, but traditions remain. Then, pray tell, where does Mary’s little lamb fit into all this, besides being as white as snow? You might ask. Simple. The author of that famous little song, which in fact was a poem originally, is the reason Thanksgiving is now a National Holiday.
It all started around 1846, when poet and novelist Sarah Josepha Hale took it upon herself to write to President Lincoln suggesting that making an official Holiday of the traditional Pilgrim-honoring meal would be good for community morale. She even proposed recipes many historians now suggest may have inspired our traditional Thanksgiving fare, perhaps far more than we realize. Pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes were among her suggestions, both of which are not likely to have been part of the original Thanksgiving menu served at Plymouth in 1621. Hale wrote to Lincoln for 17 years straight. He declared Thanksgiving a National Holiday in 1863.
No mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie? That’s right. In fact, the first Thanksgiving Dinner probably did not feature any turkey, cranberry sauce or corn on the cob either, nor did anyone around the table consume it with a fork. Shocked? The explanation is simple and quite interesting.
Forks – Common utensils at the 1621 Thanksgiving table included knives and spoons. No forks. This implement did exist, in the form of a large utensil to hold down and serve chunks of meat, but not in the form of a small, personal utensil. However, the personal fork would become popular by the next century.
Mashed Potatoes – Potatoes were not a naturally occurring root vegetable in New England. European colonists eventually imported potatoes from South America and began to cultivate it in some northern states, but it was not commonly cultivated in New England until long after the first Thanksgiving.
Stuffing – According to food historians, early Americans did not yet produce their own butter and flour immediately among settling in New England. Both are key ingredients in anything that would resemble the bread stuffing we enjoy today. However, it is likely that they flavored wild fowl dishes with onion, herbs and chestnut mixed with animal fat.
Cranberry Sauce – Like other seafaring travelers, the colonists brought several pounds of sugar along for the voyage, most of which would have been deleted by the time they settled on American soil. Also, there would have been a significant time-lapse before new stocks of such staples arrived from Europe. Cranberries being a naturally tart fruit, many historians feel it is unlikely that they were consumed without sugar.
Corn on The Cobb – Whenever corn is mentioned in the written accounts that remain from the times of the first colonies, it is in the form of a corn porridge or cornmeal bread. Remember that early Americans were introduced to corn for the first time on this continent and were not yet familiar with crop cultivation of any kind in American soil.
Pumpkin Pie – European settlers were familiar with gourd, not pumpkins. Their first encounter with pumpkins was through the Native people, who chopped and baked it, and served it in animal fat or honey. Colonists would have learned this method first. Interestingly, this pumpkin treat may have introduced settlers to maple syrup, as this, too, was used for moistening the baked pumpkin.
Last but Not Least… The Bird – Arguments as to whether the first colonists enjoyed a nice, fat, juicy turkey dinner with Native men and women of New England are as abundant as the dish selection on the modern-day Thanksgiving table. Wild turkeys were available in large numbers, but food historians believe that duck, goose and deer likely prevailed on the first Thanksgiving table. Also, proximity to the ocean inspired inevitable variations in the form of lobster, oysters and fish.
Early settlers raised ducks, chicken and geese, but eggs had far more value to them than the birds themselves, whose meat was considered too tough by the time the animal had outlived its purpose. Large birds, such as turkey, were later prized for the volume of meat they could provide, and eventually became favorite Thanksgiving fare.
And then… 65 years ago this year, turkey became a celebrated American dish all over again, but in an entirely unexpected fashion. Leftovers of sorts were the reason for this. The Swanson company had a bit of a problem, you see. They had more turkey meat on their hands than they could sell. That is, until one clever salesman suggested they package it on a tray, along with popular sides like mashed potatoes. The TV Dinner was born.