Many Americans associate Thanksgiving with things brown and bulgy - roast turkey and football.
But as the nation prepares its tables for the 375th anniversary of the First Feast, it may also get a fresh history lesson on the true origins of this uniquely American holiday.
Ask anyone for their perception of the First Feast, and they are apt to set a simple scene: Pilgrims, Indians, a bounty of harvest, and the giving of thanks.
But the Thanksgiving we know today is actually a merging of three long-ago traditions: a celebration of the harvest; religious observance involving prayer and feasting; and the commemoration of the pilgrims' landing, known as Forefathers' Day.
According to James Baker, vice president of research at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass., many Americans think the image of pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors sitting down to a feast in the autumn of 1621 is well documented.
Not true. Much of what's known about the First Feast comes from a 1621 letter Edward Winslow, a pilgrim, wrote to a friend:
"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
Many myths surround the First Feast. Most historians agree that the gathering was regarded as a secular, community celebration of the harvest rather than a religious event. The colonists would not have thought three days of feasting, recreation, and Indian guests to be a true Christian thanksgiving, says Mr. Baker. In fact, for the devoutly religious, a day of thanksgiving would be a day of prayer and humilation.
"Any culture that believes in a god that alters events will have something like a thanksgiving," says Carolyn Travers, director of research at Plimoth Plantation. This was true for the Indians as well as colonists at the time. In that light, specific days set aside for giving thanks were much more frequent during the year than you might expect.
The actual three-day feast in 1621 occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, according to Baker, not at the end of November. Furthermore, the First Feast wasn't repeated, so it was hardly the beginning of a tradition.
Yet, today, it serves as a historical marker for a time to be thankful and be grateful for blessings.
Thanksgiving as a national holiday was officially established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Franklin D. Roosevelt switched the day from the last Thursday in November to the second-to-last, to allow for a five-week holiday shopping season. "But football coaches went hysterical," Ms. Travers says. The compromise became the fourth Thursday in November.
So what might the First Feast have been like? Re-wind 375 years. It's sometime after the harvest in Plymouth.
Edward Winslow is seated at the dinner table, and he is talking in 17th-century dialect. "Lobster," he states "they are easy of gathering, and I have quite had my fill of late."
Welcome to a reenactment of the First Feast, commonly thought of as the first Thanksgiving.
Here, the holiday known for its incredible gastronomical portions is brought down to size.
No other place would be as appropriate as Plimoth Plantation, where interpreters, or actors, take on the roles in the early 17th century, specifically 1627. (Since the feast was in 1621, they adjusted.) This day's re-enactment is for media from as far away as Paris.
Interpreters speak in dialect and are dressed in period clothing. Even the serving table is how it would have been. No forks, just spoons and knives. Enormous cloth napkins, about three-feet square, are used for serving and at the table.
Women and a few children scurry about with dishes, including boiled turkey and pompion (pumpkin) stew.
The ratio of Indians to colonists is woefully off, for at the First Feast, native Americans numbered 90, pilgrims 50.
During the feast, the Winslows speak of their journey to the New World and how King Massasoit and his men have been kind. "We were fearful they might fill our sides with arrows," Mr. Winslow explains. "But thanks to the Lord's goodly providence, the Indians have been full of hospitality. And all this venison. Not in a man's life does he eat this much," says Winslow, with his wife nodding in agreement
"In harvest time, it's good to see things the Lord hath provided," announces William Brewster, the church elder, who is sitting at the head table with his "wife," Mary, and Gov. William Bradford who was governor of the colony for 33 years. His writings "Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647" form the basis of the reconstructed village here.
Barring the torrential storm that forced this year's feasters indoors during this reenactment, (indoor dining for that many people was not a possibility in the 1600s), the meal stayed in its time period.
Later, out of character, Stuart Bolton, who plays Edward Winslow, says, "The First Feast was made into a very powerful symbol, used in different ways by different people. As flawed as any representation of the past is, we can bring a view of this event better than anyone else; we're well-versed in this one mote of history."
The menu for the re-creation of the 1621 Harvest Feast included:
A Goose, Roasted
A Turkey, Boyled
A Fricase of Coney
A Pudding of Indian Corn with dried Whorleberries
A Cod, Seethed
A Brace of Ducks, Roasted Pompion, Stew'd (Pompion is pumpkin)
A Haunch of Venison, Roasted
A Savory Pudding of Hominy
A Dish of Fruit and Holland cheese also mustard
Water / Watered Wine
FIRST FEAST RECIPES
*Few details are known about the specifics of food preparation in the New World at the time of the 1621 Harvest Feast, but historians have pieced together probable recipes, surmising that in the New World, housewives cooked much as they would have in England, depending on what ingredients were available.
Recipe for A Turkie, Boyled
If you will boile chickens, young turkeys, peahens, or any house fowle daintily, you shall, after you have trimmed them, drawn them, trussed them, and washed them, fill their bellies as full of parsley as they can hold; then boil them with salt and water only till they be enough: then take a dish and put into it verjuice, and butter, and salt, and when the butter is melted, take the parsley out of the chickens' bellies, and mince it very small, and put it to the verjuice and butter, and stir it well together; then lay in the chickens, and trim the dish with sippets, and so serve it forth.
- from "The English Housewife," Gervase Markham, Michael R. Best, ed., Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1986.
A Pudding of Indian Corn with Dried Whorleberries (blueberries)
"... this is to be boyled or Stued with a gentle fire, till it be tender, of a fitt consistence, as of Rice so boyled, into which if Milke, or butter be put either with Sugar or without it, it is a food very pleasant.
...but it must be observed that it be very well boyled, the longer the better, some will let it be stuing the whole day: after it is Cold it groweth thicker, and it is commonly Eaten by mixing a good Quantity of Milke amongst it...
- based on John Winthrop's 1662 Letter to the Royal Society in London
"It is light of digestion, and the English make a kind of Loblolly of it to eat with Milk, which they call Sampe; they beat it in a Morter, and sift the flower out of it; the remainer they call Hominey, which they put into a Pot of two or three Gallons, with Water, and boyl it upon a gently Fire till it be like a Hasty Puden; they put of this into Milk and so eat it.
- "New England Rarities Discovered," by John Josselyn, 1672