Why are those foods “Thanksgiving foods”?

Although Thanksgiving is seen as an American holiday, it really resonates with our values here at FoodFaith. You may be surprised to know that it is officially celebrated in many other places around the world,  including Norfolk Island. Norfolk Island is an Australian territory, originally settled and populated by the mutineers of the H.M.S Bounty and their Tahitian captives. In the 1890s an American trader named Isaac Robinson came to the island and was granted the position of Registrar of Lands. He instituted Thanksgiving as a holiday, and began the continuing tradition of decorating the All Saints Church by tying corn stalks to the ends of the pews and piling the altar with flowers.

But the history of Thanksgiving is far older than that – and its story features themes that we can all appreciate no matter where we’re from. At the heart of it Thanksgiving grew from the good old fashioned Harvest Festival. Although the idea of a harvest festival or feast and days of thanks for all the Earth provides is not unique to any religion, the modern American version takes it’s lineage from the Protestanttradition of holding Days of Fasting and Days of Thanks. These did not have to happen at any particular time of year. One particular feast of thanks if often cited as the First Thanksgiving, and is the reason that modern Thanksgiving happens in November.

Tisquantem, a Wampanoag man

Tisquantem, a Wampanoag man

Of the roughly 100 Pilgrims which survived the journey on the Mayflower to the New World, about half did not survive the first winter. The Europeans knew nothing of the new climate, the plants that would and would not grow, and despite many previous European expeditions to that part of the world had not yet worked out that the American North-East is colder than England even though it is further south. Those pilgrims became the Plymouth colony, and they would not have survived if not for the knowledge shared with them by Native Americans. One native man in particular, named Tisquantem, had previously been captured and brought to Europe to be sold as a slave. On arrival some Catholic monks who disapproved of abusing Native Americans in this way commandeered the cargo of the ship and began to instruct the Native Americans in Catholicism. It is unclear whether Tisquantem ran away or was allowed to go freely, but eventually he found a ship bound for the New World and made his way back to his home. Nothing could have prepared him for what he found.

90% of the population of his entire region had been wiped out by small pox due to contact with the Europeans. His people, the Wampanoag, had always had an uneasy but largely non-violent relationship with the foreigners. They traded some goods, but their relationship was on thin ice. The Wampanoag had a long history of conflict and hostility with the people to the North of them, the Narragansett. As the Narragansett had comparatively little contact with the Europeans, their numbers had not been decimated by disease to the same degree. The Wampanoag now faced European invasion on one front, and possible domination by their long term enemies on the other. This, rather than altruism, forged a strategic alliance between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims of Plymouth. Tisquantem comes back into the story as an interpreter, as in his time in Europe he had learned English. This made him an important man given the context. He taught the pilgrims how to farm corn, fertilize it with fish from the waterways, and companion plant it with squash and beans which can then climb the cornstalk. It cannot be stressed enough that the survival of the colony is owed to the Native Americans who shared their knowledge of the land. The first harvest after receiving their help was a bumper, good rain at the right time meant that they had plenty of all that they needed. They held a feast of Thanksgiving in the English Harvest Festival tradition. Massoit, the leader of Tisquantem’s people attended the feast. In fact the feast was attended by some ninety Wampanoag and fifty-something pilgrims. It is from the accounts of this feast that we draw our modern day Thanksgiving fair. The accounts state that they had fish and wild fowl in abundance, and in that part of the world the wild fowl could have only been – you guessed it – Turkey. Peace between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag lasted for 50 years.

The First Thanksgiving 1621 , by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

The First Thanksgiving 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

So there you have it, that’s why we eat turkey, corn, green beans, pumpkin, etc. It’s also why we don’t mind that its an American tradition – because it represents the things we stand for at FoodFaith. It’s about thanking the land for providing for us and thanking your god (whoever that might be) for everything you have.

And even though I know I have romanticised it, and the alliance was forged out of opportunism rather than a desire for unity, I still like the idea of 90 Wampanoag sitting down to dinner with 50 pilgrims to share the spoils of the earth.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This article is based on information from the following sources: