The Archaeology of Thanksgiving

Depending on who you are you either have visions of Turkeys or Native Americans dancing in your head.  Me, I’m one of the food folks, I think we’re called Foodies now, and I love me some Thanksgiving Grub! However, like most of history, this forgoten Amrican holiday is shrouded in a fog of missunderstanding and bad interpritation. And no, Aliens were not present at the time.

Still, our modern celebration was based on a simple harvest feast held in 1621 [1]. According to Kathleen Curtin of the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum, it’s true that English Colonists and the Wampanoag tribe did get together for a three day festival celebrating their first harvest. There was food, diplomacy, and military exercises [1]. This wasn’t a “Thanksgiving” of any sort but a normal harvest occasion [1]. Though there was a military agreement and trade relations between the two cultures they were still very different; they had no common language or worldview [1]. It wasn’t until 1841 that this particular feast became known as ‘The First Thanksgiving’ [1].

So, enough about actual history you say? What was on the menue that first harvest feast?

According to Curtin, it probalby wasn’t Croissants and pie. The Colonists didn’t have acesss to bakeing ovens and their acess to grains was even more doubtful [1]. But that didn’t stop them from cooking up a fine supper. Curtin says they would often have several meat dishes, roast pork, chicken, small birds, and they probably boiled their Turkeys. Add to that losts of stewed veggies and you’ve got a meal. One thing we are certain they had, The Three Sistsers – Corn, Beans, and Squash [2]. 

The Wampanoag tribe had access to these for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Colonists, and we know a minor amount of exchange occurred between them [2]. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the Wampanoag either brought the foods with them, or the Colonists prepared the dishes themselves for the feast. Curtin even provides a wonderful stewed pumpkin recipe, guaranteed to produce “Urin and Wind” [1]. 

So, If this year you are looking to make a more ‘traditonal’ Thanksgiving dinner, forgo all grains, stew your veggies, boil your Turkey and don’t forget the Three Sisters!

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

[1]  Archaeological Institute of America
       2006 “Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation: Kathleen Curtin.” Acessed Nov. 24 2011

[2]  The State Museum of Pennsylvania/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
       2009 “Thanksgiving Staples: The Three Sisters”. Acessed Nov. 24 2011

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