The pilgrims ate swans. Maybe that’s why we can’t relate to them. Maybe that’s why, as holiday icons go, pilgrims are the most inscrutable. Easter eggs we understand. We have experience with eggs. Snowmen we understand.
Pilgrims, though. Freaks, but not in a fun way. Fleeing the England of Donne and Shakespeare by way of the Holland of Rubens and Rembrandt, they hurtled headlong toward a wild, unsettled shore, a shore without restaurants or bars, seeking a Puritan paradise.
Puritan means puritan. In his chronicle of Plymouth Plantation’s early years, plantation governor William Bradford recounted the case of a teenage boy “detected of buggery … with a mare, a cowe, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey.” After a jury summarily sentenced the youth to death, “first the mare, and ye cowe, and ye rest of ye lesser catle, were kild before his face, according to ye law, Levit: 20. 15. and then he him selfe was executed” — in public, of course. This is America’s heritage.
Held in what was probably early October 1621 to mark the colonists’ first harvest, the three-day feast shared with local Wampanoag Indians was not a one-off. Pilgrims responded to all major strokes of good luck with what they called Days of Thanksgiving. The counterpoints, prompted by runs of bad luck, were Days of Humiliation. A typical one, recorded in 1641 and spent as usual in fasting, weeping, and prayer, was staged in hopes of quelling certain “strange and heretical tenets” and a “bloody cough” affecting the plantation’s children. Prayer was the main thing on all Puritan holidays: sermons and Scripture for eight or nine hours running. Then food. Maybe.
No one dreamed of immortalizing the first Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until more than two hundred years later, when a wave of Plymouth Rock nostalgia swept America — pilgrims were retro then — that a magazine editor petitioned the president to create a Puritan-themed holiday. Abraham Lincoln made it official in 1861.
When they weren’t buggering turkeys, the Puritans ate them. Turkeys ran wild in what is now Massachusetts, and when you shot one, its companions would freeze in terror, staring immobile while you shot even more. But in 1621, Plymouth Plantation had no ovens. Thus the pilgrims couldn’t bake turkeys but had to roast them over open fires. No ovens, no wheat flour, no pies. That’s Thanksgiving’s dark secret. Almost every dish you associate with it, the pilgrims couldn’t or wouldn’t have eaten.
So the “traditional” meal is contrived, a 19th-century sissification of ingredients presumed to have been pilgrim fare. Accurate historical re-creation this is not. There were no apples at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Pumpkins, yes, but no one thought to sweeten them. Cranberries, yes, but it would be another fifty years before anyone thought to sweeten these. No sugar at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. Maple syrup, yes, and honey, but that first feast most likely had no dessert at all. No mashed potatoes, no candied yams — no potatoes at all. No bread stuffing — no bread. Lies, all lies. It’s like discovering that you’ve married a transvestite, or that your parents are robots.
Maybe that’s another reason why this holiday leaves so many Americans conflicted — maybe we’ve always suspected chicanery. But dive beneath its shallow cardboard-cutout surface, its now-what anomie, and superimposed pies, and you’ll find a sharp ledge of hunger and hope, a moment when everything felt new and raw, the seas and forests full, when the future was all that mattered and the Indians had no cause yet to hate you.
All we know of the first Thanksgiving feast derives from two accounts. The first, a letter from pilgrim Edward Winslow dated December 12 of that year, laments that while the plantation’s barley was pickable, its peas were a washout, for “they were too late sown … the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The quartet killed waterfowl while some ninety Wampanoag hunted down five deer, and brought them back to the plantation.
The second description comes from Governor Bradford, who describes colonists catching “cod and bass and other fish … besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” The year’s “small harvest” was rich in “Indian corn.”
Winslow offered further clues in another letter: “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth a variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors. All the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good salad herbs. Here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries. Plums … black and red.”
Because lobsters and crabs were so common and scrounged insectlike on the sludgy ocean floor, the pilgrims considered them junkyard fish but ate them anyway, out of sheer hunger. Historians cite other plants and animals so plentiful as to have been indisputable pilgrim staples: onions, leeks, squash, pumpkins (known then as pumpions), geese, ducks, cranes, swans. Also ripe for the shooting were eagles, which Winslow described as tasting “like mutton.”
A supply of oats, salt and pepper, and Dutch cheese was brought over on the Mayflower, Gouda and Edam having been manufactured in Holland since the 12th century. A small ration of salt pork might have been on board too, but there were no pigs on Plymouth Plantation in 1621, thus no ham. An absence of ovens meant the feast was boiled, roasted, or eaten raw, and devoured with spoons, knives, and bare hands. No forks on Plymouth Plantation in 1621.
Armed with all this knowledge, Susie the Lawyer and I, who always do Thanksgiving together, set out to gather the makings of that first feast. We had to start cheating almost immediately.
Even if we wanted to gather live creatures from San Francisco Bay, we couldn’t. Bay oysters, once a Miwok and Ohlone favorite, were pretty much fished out by 1870; ditto its crabs twenty years later. The surviving fish are mostly too toxic for human consumption. At 99 Ranch Market, we found live fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, easy to “catch” in teeming tanks. As a vegetarian, I would have died of starvation even before disembarking from the Mayflower, but Susie eyed the shimmering, hissing black mussels, planning exactly how she would boil them alive.
The problem with authentically re- creating a Plymouth Plantation meal is having to kill stuff. Those who don’t eat flesh have an easy excuse for dodging this challenge — then again, we’d probably starve — but those who do can commune with the ancestors by shooting ducks in Suisun Marsh or, at the very least, braining live carp bought in Chinatown or at 99 Ranch.
The first Thanksgiving menu included deer, which throng the East Bay regional parks. You can’t shoot those, so instead we shopped for venison, but never found it fresh. Prohibitive laws governing the rendering of wild game animals aren’t worth the trouble for commercial butchers since deer meat, at least around here, inspires very little demand. It tastes enough like beef not to be worth the bother. Deer raised under controlled conditions in Canada and New Zealand are slaughtered to become the frozen steaks now sold at Whole Foods and the Berkeley Bowl.
Eels taste best when freshly killed, but “best” in eel terms entails an elastic texture that brings tendons to mind. Northern Californian eels are smaller and not as toothsome as native species elsewhere, so are not typically sold in stores here. “And besides, live eels have that horrible head,” Susie shuddered, buying three strips of soy-flavored unagi from Albany’s Tokyo Fish Market. Even doctored up this way, the unagi afforded a sample of eel’s intensely oily fishiness.
Having neglected to harvest plums and berries throughout the summer and dry them for cold weather as the pilgrims did, we bought some organic prunes and raisins at Andronico’s. We found barley there, too. Ditto cornmeal, for long-cooked mush, and oats. Ditto squash and pumpkin from a huge array at Monterey Market. And maple syrup, which we bought at Whole Foods, saved us tapping any maple trees. Buying organic fruits and vegetables at a farmers’ market might have been more evocative, but it still wouldn’t have been us who grew the stuff.
But our failure to plant or harvest anything at all made us feel more like fakers than ever. The pilgrims were antic God-fearers, but they were also inescapably in touch with nature — grateful for whatever strategies their pagan neighbors could offer. For the pilgrims, thanksgiving meant thanksgiving. They were lucky to be alive, and they knew it. Staying alive takes less luck now. We scooped up our change with warm, uncalloused hands.
The Europe the Puritans fled was rife with plagues. Knowing nothing yet of germs, Europeans knew nonetheless that water could be lethal. So they drank beer and cider instead, in massive quantities. Some was toted ashore from the Mayflower, but since Governor Bradford frowned on intoxicants, the thirsty Puritans had to force themselves, week by week, to sip from New World creeks. We bought cider at Monterey Market, and to augment the shipboard-staples component added aged Dutch Boorenkaas from the Cheese Board.
Salt pork awaited at San Pablo Poultry, along with ducks and geese. Bought this way, farm-bred, trussed, and frozen, they will not taste as gamey as they did to the pilgrims: that frankly bloody, muscly, wild-bird tang. But even farm-bred ducks and geese are — compared to their pallid poultry cousins — rocket ships of grease. The pilgrims ate fat assiduously. Winters were cold where they came from, brutal where they ended up. Living till spring was never guaranteed.
And so Thanksgiving in the end comes down to that. This is not about governments and wars, or Butterball versus free-range. It’s about sowing and reaping, and — even if we have to turn it into effete metaphors — simply surviving.
Jonathan Kauffman is on vacation.