In my mid twenties, I attended graduate school overseas. The hardest part about being an international student was not being home for the holidays. As summer turned to autumn, I started thinking about all that I’d be missing: the rowdy family parties, the hours of reading by the fireplace at my parents’ house, and the smell of yeast rolls that permeated my grandma’s kitchen.
With great gusto sprinkled with plenty of naiveté, I announced that I would make an entire Thanksgiving dinner for the other students living on my corridor, most of whom were from other countries as well. After hours of laboring in the kitchen and receiving help from my colleagues who had more culinary knowledge than I did, we finally sat down to a feast of roasted turkey, various casseroles and yeast rolls—the first Thanksgiving meal for everyone at the table except me.
A few days ago I was reminded of this event when a friend of mine from the United Kingdom, who has lived in the US for several years now, recently admitted that she still didn’t “get” Thanksgiving and asked me to explain it.
Why have a holiday of feasting so close to another holiday of feasting, she wondered.
Obviously, another thing she doesn’t “get” is the American obsession with food, and eating lots of it, especially when celebrating the holidays with family and friends. Yet while those of us raised with this tradition may have visions of pumpkin pie dancing in our heads, the first Thanksgiving meal on record in the U.S. featured food and activities most of us would not associate with this holiday.
Here are some fun facts about this holiday’s origins:
- The first Thanksgiving on record was celebrated in autumn of 1621, when Plymouth colony governor William Bradford invited the Wampanoag to celebrate the bounty of the harvest at a three-day festival.
- While the first feast featured some of the foods we still eat at Thanksgiving today, such as corn and wild turkey, other items said to have been on the menu are much less-commonly featured. According to the Smithsonian Institute’s historical records of the event, the pilgrims “exercised [their] arms” along with the Wampanoag, killing waterfowl and deer for the meal.
- Although historians speculate about other items that were probably on the menu, such as clams and lobster, one staple of today’s Thanksgiving meal was certainly not on the menu: pumpkin pie. Although pumpkins were readily available, the early colonists did not have the ingredients necessary to make pie crust. Also unavailable at that time were cranberries and sweet potatoes.
- Celebrating the harvest was a tradition among the native people long before the colonists arrived. The Cherokees, for example, held the Green Corn Ceremony, which occurred in June or July, depending on when the corn ripened. This ceremony included both feasting and fasting. Forty-five days later, they held the Mature Green Corn Ceremony, featuring dancing, hunting and feasting.
- What’s special about Thursday? Holidays after the harvest were often held on “Lecture Day,” a church day in the middle of the week reserved for sermons on specific topics. It became a nationally-recognized and celebrated holiday in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving should be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.
Most Popular Thanksgiving Foods at Indy Reads
When we asked the students in our literacy classes to name their favorite Thanksgiving foods, here were the most popular responses:
- Green beans
- Green bean casserole
- Sweet Potatoes or Yams
- Mashed Potatoes
- Pumpkin pie
- Macaroni and cheese
- Corn Bread
What about you? Do you have special foods you eat on Thanksgiving that aren’t listed here or any recipes you’d like to share? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please leave comments below!
|After spending a couple of decades as an international and domestic nomad, Jennifer Malins returned to Indiana four years ago and now works for Indy Reads as Vice President of Program. If she’s not reading a book, she’s either writing her novel or preparing for a figure skating competition. She is also a health nut, so if you meet her, you’ll be sure to get some unsolicited health advice as well. (Hide the doughnuts!)|