Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving is a contested holiday. Enjoy it anyway.

First off, let's talk turkey. Actually, let's discuss whether we should be eating turkey at all. Back in the early 1980s, Calvin Trillin wrote a piece titled "Spaghetti Carbonara Day", later anthologized in Third Helpings (1983) and in The Tummy Trilogy (1994). The gist of his argument is as follows:
In England, along time ago, there were people called Pilgrims who were very strict about making everyone observe the Sabbath and cooked food without any flavor and that sort of thing, and they decided to go to America, where they could enjoy Freedom to Nag. The other people in England said, "Glad to see the back of them." In America, the Pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn't get much done because they were always putting their best farmers in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness. The Indians took pity on the Pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though the Indians thought that the Pilgrims were about as much fun as teenage circumcision. The Pilgrims were so grateful that at the end of their first year in America they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal. The Indians, having had some experience with Pilgrim cuisine during the year, took the precaution of taking along one dish of their own. They brought a dish that their ancestors had learned from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as "the big Italian fellow." The dish was spaghetti carbonara--made with pancetta bacon and fontina and the best imported prosciutto. The Pilgrims hated it. They said it was "heretically tasty" and "the work of the devil" and "the sort of thing foreigners eat." The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the Pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, "What a bunch of turkeys!"
But, were the Pilgrims (who weren't actually called that until some years after 1620) really such an unpleasant lot? David D. Hall, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, in his op-ed piece "Peace, Love and Puritanism" in yesterday's New York Times, blames their bad rep in part on a novel written many years after they arrived:
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later, bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. Over the years, Americans have added to Hawthorne’s unfriendly portrait with references to witch-hunting and harsh treatment of Native Americans.
Hall then argues:
Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.
Ah, but here's another point of controversy: did this notion of an "obligation to serve others" manifest itself in a kind of pre-Marxian "socialism" that, as argued by some "conservative"* writers in recent years, led to indolence and crop failure which was alleviated by a decision to allow individuals or families to own and farm private property, thereby giving them the incentive to produce more and leading to the bumper crop that was the basis for the first Thanksgiving feast? The British historian Godfrey Hodgson observes of this argument, in his article "Thanksgiving and the Tea Party" in openDemocracy, that "there is a certain historical basis for it."
When the settlers had first arrived at Plymouth, all their slender property was held in common, and food distributed to each according to his need. In spring 1623, they decided to allow each family to grow its own food on its own plot. [Edward] Winslow [one of the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower] describes the motive thus: “considering that self-love, wherewith every man, in a measure more or less, loveth and preferreth his own good before his neighbour’s, and also the base disposition of some drones”.
Hodgson notes, contrary to Hall's suggestion of a religious motive for the holding of property in common, that
...[A]ll of them, godly or profane, were engaged in a capitalist enterprise. They had borrowed money for the expedition from financiers who would have to be repaid. Their agreement over sharing land and property was the internal arrangement of a company of adventurers, of whom there were many such in 16th and 17th century England; this one just happened to include men and women with religious convictions.
Kate Zernike in her November 20 Sunday Times article, "The Pilgrims Were...Socialists?", quotes New York University historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman concerning a similar common holding agreement among the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia: “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

There is also dispute over the timing and nature of the first Thanksgiving feast. Hodgson notes that there are two extant accounts of the earliest years of the Plymouth settlement written by original settlers. One of these, Good Newes from New England, by Winslow, was published in 1624, just four years after the Mayflower arrived; the other, Of Plimothe Plantation, by William Bradford, governor of the colony, was written and published a quarter of a century later. Both Winslow and Bradford, the latter perhaps relying on Winslow's earlier account, describe an event in the summer of 1623, which Hodgson summarizes thus:
A drought causes the crop planted by the settlers - corn and beans - to fail. They respond by humbling themselves before the Lord in prayer and fasting. “Oh, the mercy of our God”, Winslow writes, “the clouds gathered together on all sides, and the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain” that the corn and the beans revived. The settlers thank their God for His mercy.
This comports with the notion of the motive for the first Thanksgiving: gratitude to God for a good harvest. It also fits with the "Tea Party" account chronologically, since the "common course" of property holding was abolished by Bradford in the spring of 1623. Nevertheless, it doesn't support the notion that a newfound industriousness on the part of the settlers caused a bumper crop; instead, it was a change in the weather that the settlers ascribed to their pious supplications to God.

The other account, as found in Bradford's narrative, agrees more closely in its details to what has become the traditional Thanksgiving story, in that it takes place late in 1621 and involves Native American guests. Hodgson describes it as follows:
Bradford’s account [is] of a feast in 1621 - a sort of frontier diplomatic dinner - between the people Bradford later called “Pilgrims” and the local “Indian” tribe and their “king”, Massasoit. Bradford describes how the colonists sent four men out to hunt, who returned with a large quantity of “fowl” (not necessarily turkeys); and how the Indians contributed the carcasses of five deer. That event is widely remembered as the First Thanksgiving (see [Hodgson's] A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving [PublicAffairs, 2007]).
Randy Patrick, in "The Myth of the First Thanksgiving," relying on Hodgson's A Great and Godly Adventure, notes that the Native Americans were party crashers, not invited guests.
When about 100 Wampanoag warriors showed up uninvited at the Pilgrims’ festival with freshly killed deer as a gesture of goodwill, they were angling for a treaty with the Anglo-Saxon tribe.
Patrick also notes Hodgson's "convincing" argument that the 1621 feast was not one of "thanksgiving" to God, but rather (quoting from A Great and Godly Adventure):
...“a harvest-home celebration, of the kind familiar from centuries of observance in rural England, interrupted by a force of Indians …”

In the first place, Hodgson says, the Separatists (they weren’t called Pilgrims) showed their gratitude to God not by feasting, but by fasting.

Being radical Protestants, they didn’t celebrate holy days (i.e. holidays) such as Christmas and Easter, because they considered them superstitious relics of Catholicism.

Being English, however, they did celebrate the secular Medieval harvest festival, which involved eating, drinking beer and wine, and playing games.
However, Patrick disputes Hodgson's contention that turkey was not likely to have been on the menu because they were scarce in the vicinity of Plymouth. He cites Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower (2006), which quotes Bradford to the effect that wild turkeys were abundant in the area, and that the settlers hunted them in winter when they could track them in the snow.
One thing’s for sure: If the Pilgrims did encounter a turkey, they would know what it was because the Spanish had introduced the American species to Europe by way of the Ottoman Empire (thus the name “Turkey”) in the time of the conquistadors. By the 1620s, it was a familiar dish on the English table.

As for the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, Hodgson says, the English colonists didn’t have sugar until decades later.
So, what can we conclude from all this? Attempts to use history to prove gastronomic, political, or religious contentions must always be examined carefully. Meanwhile, enjoy your turkey with all the trimmings.

* I've put "conservative" in quotes for the reasons given in the first footnote to this post. In particular, I think that advocates of largely unregulated "free markets" are anti-conservative, if "conservative" is understood to mean protective of a stable social order, as untrammeled markets are erosive of such stability.


  1. Nice research - hope you enjoyed the holiday!

  2. timely and interesting. happy holiday and time of thanksgiving . . .