What we choose to remember about the past often says more about America than what actually happened. Thanksgiving betrays a hunger – which we see throughout American history – to create a shared national identity. Because very little is known about what actually happened at the “first Thanksgiving,” we’ve been free to celebrate it based on what we’ve needed it to look like over time.
Most of what is known about the foods of the first Thanksgiving is based on what was common at that time in the region, and a letter written by Edward Winslow to a friend in England describing the feast in 1621. Winslow wrote that Gov. Bradford of the Plymouth Colony sent men out to hunt wildfowl (most likely goose or duck) while Wampanoag Indians brought deer. While turkeys were plentiful in New England in the 1620s, historians agree that it is unlikely that they were the centerpiece of the first Thanksgiving. Turkeys were hard to catch and the meat was tough. Fish, however, would have been plentiful and almost certainly part of any harvest celebration.
Cranberries were native to New England and would have been in Indians’ diet in the 1620s, so they could have been part of the Thanksgiving meal. We also know that pumpkins, a type of squash, were eaten in 1620s New England, though there was no flour and hence no pies.
With very little historical basis on which to create a shared national holiday, America needed someone to tell them how it should be celebrated. Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was just the woman for the job.
Hale, based in Boston and later Philadelphia, was the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, a very popular women’s magazine of the mid-19th century. She first wrote about the Thanksgiving meal in her novel “Northwood: A Tale of New England,” published in 1827.
She described the roast turkey at the head of the table: “And well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” Her meal included “a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton,” plus “pies of every description known in Yankee land.”
This vision of the plentiful feast table represented mid-19th century ideals of the woman’s role in creating a perfect home, and her writings created the “classic” Thanksgiving ideal. As the country was divided by the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln urging him to make the day a national event to bring Americans together. On Oct. 3, 1863, Lincoln did just that.
As America entered the 20th century, we tweaked Thanksgiving food traditions to reflect the modern vision of America. Progress, innovation and technology all became part of the Thanksgiving table. Take the beloved cranberry sauce. Cranberries were too delicate to transport long distances and were consumed mostly in New England. But in 1912, Marcus Urann started packaging and selling canned cranberry sauce under the name Ocean Spray Preserving Co. Now cranberries could enjoy a longer shelf life and become fixtures on the Thanksgiving table far away from cranberry bogs.
The vast majority of pumpkins grown in America today are turned into canned pumpkin puree, which takes away the need to bake and mash a real pumpkin for pie. So our Thanksgiving feast is as much a tribute to the mid-20th-century modernist ideal as it is to a 19th-century idealized view of our 17th-century origin story.
My Thanksgiving meal this year is going to be a mash-up. I can’t give up the canned cranberry sauce. But I’ve also ordered a “heritage” turkey – a bird that has more in common with a wild turkey than a Butterball – and added fish to the menu to give those around my dinner table a taste of what the Pilgrims might have eaten. I’m also going to add some mutton, a nod to Hale’s Northwood feast.
Thanksgiving not only reflects who Americans are, but also how creative we can be in putting new twists on old experiences.
Susan Evans is program director of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. She wrote this for “What It Means to Be American,” a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.