A few weeks ago at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, I taught 10 beginning cooks the basics of Thanksgiving. A few had never handled a raw turkey. Another had never whipped cream to put on top of pumpkin pie.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so it was important to me that I added 10 more cooks to the call of this all-American tradition. I love planning the meal, setting out my serving dishes and getting up early to cook. I love the smell of the kitchen. I love pumpkin pie batter. I love the memory of how the cavity of an undefrosted turkey succumbed to a blow-dryer.
Mostly, I love the Thanksgiving story. I’ve been to the living museum Plimouth Plantation south of Boston twice. As I walked through the replica of Plymouth Colony (William Bradford spelled it Plimouth), I doubted I could have survived being a pilgrim.
I think of the pilgrims as 1600s astronauts, launching themselves by boat into a perilous ocean that represented the outer space of their time and not knowing whether the Mayflower’s 152 passengers would live or where they’d land.
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They built a small village out of hand-sawn trees and dug gardens in virgin land. More than half died before spring, including 13 women of child-bearing age. They might as well have been on Mars.
By November 1621, exactly a year to the month since they’d arrived, these Separatists who broke from Henry VIII’s Church of England because it was still too Catholic staged what we’d recognize as a barbecue. Or a bender.
Described as three days of eating and incessant beer drinking (beer is healthier than water), the meal fed 90 Wampanoag Indians and 50 settlers. Venison hung over an open fire. According to Edward Winslow’s writing, there was all manner of “fowle” – duck, partridge, geese. Turkey wasn’t specified, but our North American wild turkey was certainly in the pilgrims’ diet, as it was already in Europe.
There was ample pumpkin and cranberries, and plenty of that New England trash fish – lobster.
They pulled off this marathon without flour, sugar, milk, butter or cheese, never knowing that this meal would become a template for a secular American holiday. More than 240 years later, Abraham Lincoln made it official when he proclaimed the last Thursday in November as the nation’s day of Thanksgiving.
For centuries, Thanksgiving has remained a menu of musts – turkey, stuffing or dressing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. Now it’s a meal so malleable it absorbs all manner of family idiosyncrasies, regional substitutions and compulsive tinkering, although few tables have yet to make room for lobster.
Coming from the East Coast, it’s always seemed unusual to have Thanksgiving in California. It’s 65 degrees outside and we’re heaving into our bodies the heaviest of New England belly bombs. Sunset magazine tracked for decades how Thanksgiving eased itself into a western style.
“The swarms of people who came west were conditioned to the concept of Thanksgiving, loved the bounty of the West and found both worth celebrating together,” Sunset food editor emeritus Jerry DiVecchio said in an email. “From Sunset’s point of view, we wanted to celebrate the foods special to the season and the West, i.e., persimmon puddings, avocado salads, all our glorious citrus, produce, etc. with our way of cooking – hence the endless variations on BBQ turkey.”
Still, the smallest departure from tradition can be a jolt. One friend told me his first Thanksgiving in California left no doubt he wasn’t in Virginia anymore. The main course was tri-tip. California was where I experienced my first no-turkey Thanksgiving back in the day when a single vegetarian could scrub the day of culinary symbolism. This was my first and last salmon Thanksgiving.
My strangest Thanksgiving was in Hawaii. We smelled like coconut oil and ate a meal so incongruous that the food of New England seemed like a foreign cuisine.
The Thanksgiving that most resembled the pilgrims’ menu, at least for me, was near Dallas. My friend Dotty Griffith, then the food editor of the Dallas Morning News, invited me over to her parents’ home. It was the first time I’d ever had freshly slain wild turkey.
Megan Stanley, 30, of Elk Grove tweaks Thanksgiving to go back in time. She has an anthropology degree from Long Beach State and worked for two years in the foodways department at Plimouth Plantation.
“I tried to convince my parents to put beer on the table,” Stanley says of the pilgrims’ habitual beverage. This year, Stanley’s turkey traditionalist parents will see a new dish on their table Thursday.
“My fiancé was born and raised in Plymouth (Mass.),” Stanley explains, “but he’s Italian, and they always have pasta.”
For dessert, Stanley will make a historically accurate cornmeal-based Indian pudding no pilgrim could have imagined. “It’s really good with coconut ice cream.”
Elaine Corn is an award-winning cookbook author, newspaper food editor and occasional contributor to NPR affiliate Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Contact her at ElaineCornInForum@gmail.com.