The first Thanksgiving. Not Plymouth, but Tidewater?
Charles City, Va. — We all know what it was like: friendly Indians and grateful Pilgrims eating turkey and cranberries on the rocky shores of New England. The scene has been etched in our minds since pre-kindergarten days. But maybe the picture is a bit fanciful. Maybe there was no turkey. Maybe the cranberries were some other kind of berry. And maybe - just maybe - the locale wasn't even New England. It could be high time to revise the story ... WHEN a New Englander thinks of having dinner at the site of the first Thanksgiving, it's always in Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims celebrated a bountiful harvest in 1621. But here I was, a New Englander, in the heart of Tidewater, Virginia, being served an authentic Southern meal at the Berkeley plantation - the site, my host contends, of the real first Thanksgiving in 1619.
Malcolm Jamieson, host and owner of this historic working plantation, still in operation after 3 centuries, knows well the history of the early Berkeley settlement.
``Britishers came ashore here on December 4, 1619, and gave thanks for a safe journey across the ocean,'' he told me. ``Their charter had explicit orders which commanded that `... the day of our ship's arrival ... shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving'.
``I hope this doesn't displease you,'' Mr. Jamieson said, knowing of my New England background. ``But the dates indicate that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated here on the banks of our James River,'' he continued, ``a year before the Puritans sailing in boats bound for Virginia, were blown off their course and landed in New England.''
He also told me about a framed letter from the White House which gives him some pride. It reads, ``Dear Mr. Jamieson: You are quite right, and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff. We are all grateful to you for reminding us of the Berkeley Hundred Thanksgiving; and I can assure you that the error will not be repeated in the future.''
It was signed, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Special Assistant to President Kennedy, November 30, 1962.
We were at dinner, not in the mansion house itself, but in one of the dependencies, the former coach house at the Berkeley Plantation. (The plantation is open for tours, but not for meals; this was a private affair.) There was candlelight and fresh wild flowers. A floor-length yellow cloth with white overlay was set with fine silver, crystal, and damask napkins.
Annie Chalkley, a young caterer from Charles City, who planned and supervised the dinner, talked a little about the food.
``My cooking is not like the cooking here at the plantation years ago,'' she explained.
``What I try to do is use the local foods grown in Virginia, keeping some of the traditions, but changing the old recipes to create a lighter, easier, perhaps more sophisticated cuisine.
``I think we can still combine some of the Southern cooking methods with classic French technique, so they fill the current need for quick and easy dishes.
``Any home cook should try steaming and poaching vegetables and fish instead of using the old deep fry methods. Southerners can get out of the habit of using long grained white rice. I like cracked wheat, brown rice, lentils, and other grains,'' she says.
The dinner began with Grilled Chicken with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, Turbeville Cantaloupe with Stilton Mousseline and French Rolls, followed by a delicious Chesapeake Bay Seafood Bisque.
The main dish was Savory Grilled Butterflied Lamb, served with Herbed New Potato Salad, Plantation Ratatouille, and Chiffonade of Mixed Garden Greens. The dessert was a Blueberry Cr`eme Anglaise.
Jamieson explained that when he first came to live at the plantation there was no electricity, and there were no roads. Today it is a working plantation of more than 1,000 acres, producing small grains, sheep, and other crops.
With its tall chimneys and gabled roof, Berkeley has many historic claims to fame. It is the birthplace of one president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, and home of another, William Henry's grandson, Benjamin.
George Washington was often entertained at Berkeley, and all of America's first 10 presidents enjoyed the plantation's legendary hospitality.
President Lincoln twice visited Gen. McClellan and his Federal Army here in 1862.
Taps was composed at Berkeley in 1862 by Gen. Daniel Butterfield who was stationed here with McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign.
After the Civil War, the manor house was abandoned, until 1907 when it was purchased by John Jamieson of Scotland, who had served as a drummer boy in McClellan's army 50 years before.
John Jamieson's son Malcolm, its present owner, and his wife Grace, are responsible for the complete restoration of both the house and grounds as they appear today.
Among the James River plantation houses in Virginia, Berkeley has no peer as a center of historical interest and as a beautifully restored example of Virginia's mansions.
The mansion is furnished with rare antiques; and Berkeley's 45-foot-long grand hall, leading down to the James River, overlooks five terraces, built by hand before the Revolutionary War.
The grounds are pleasant, with magnificent old trees, unusually fine boxwood gardens, and a charming summerhouse with a graceful bell roof and Chinese Chippendale railings.
English influence is also still much in evidence at the more elegant tables of Tidewater Virginia in Thanksgiving and Christmas dishes.
Mrs. Jamieson told me about her family Thanksgiving dinners that always include oysters, scalloped in a casserole or sometimes as stuffing for the turkey.
``A chestnut stuffing is also traditional, and this is an appropriate time to have venison, which is in season at Thanksgiving,'' she says.
Along with their culinary heritage, Virginians also make much of Southern specialties.
``Brunswick stew is one of my favorite fall dishes and we usually serve it on a weekend during holiday time,'' Mrs. Jamieson says.
``It's made, you know, with rabbit, but also includes chicken, veal, and ham hock. The correct vegetables are butterbeans, tomatoes, and corn; and it is delicious.
``We always have hot spiced cider this time of year and serve it on the grounds on the day the first Thanksgiving is reenacted,'' she said.
``It's just the right thing, hot and spicy, from a huge cauldron, because it's usually a chilly autumn day.''
``Cranberries and giblet gravy, and hot rolls are a must at every Southern holiday dinner, as well as sweet potatoes and green beans, syllabub, and mince pie. We also have rich dark fruitcakes and plum puddings.''
Adding a slightly new touch to an old favorite holiday vegetable is Annie Chalkley's specialty, and she suggests whipping sweet potatoes until they're light and puffy, using a pastry tube for a decorative flourish and dusting the top with cinnamon.
With so many different vegetables served during the holidays, it might be pleasant to have one that's smooth and easy to make.
This pur'ee can be made hours in advance and left on the stove to sit in a double boiler, to be heated when needed. Butternut Squash and Leeks 11/4 pounds butternut squash 2 teaspoons butter 1/2 pound leeks, cleaned, in rounds 2 tablespoons cream 3/4 tablespoon salt Freshly ground black pepper Freshly grated nutmeg
Cut squash in half; remove seeds. Place a teaspoon of butter in each cavity and bake in foil-lined pan about 1 hour, or until tender.
Clean leeks thoroughly and slice in rounds, using only white parts. Cover slices with lightly salted water and simmer 15 minutes, until tender.
Scoop out squash pulp and combine all ingredients in food processor and pur'ee. Correct seasoning if needed.
Serves 4 to 6.