If you grew up in the United States in the past 130 years, you’ve heard the story of a 1621 feast shared by English Pilgrims and Wampanoag Natives to commemorate peaceful relations between the two communities and to share in the abundance that is a New England autumn. They ate wild turkey and venison, corn and cranberries, pumpkin, fruits, and root crops freshly harvested from their colonial gardens and the surrounding wilderness. On the other side of history, we have canonized the meal as symbolic of our nation’s origins. At the time, it was a welcome gorge preceding a long winter, an accidental union of two disparate cultures’ values.
Certainly the Wampanoag viewed such a feast through the eyes of thanksgiving. Holding a sense of thanks through all stages of the year’s cycle, planting, childbirth, harvest, and the hunt were tasks performed with deep gratitude to the powers that made them possible. Likewise, the Pilgrims’ spiritual tradition placed thanks at the center of their religious and daily life.
Feast is the opposite of famine, a dichotomy enshrined by the Puritan Pilgrims that colonized Plymouth Rock, who landed on that challenging shoreline in an effort to find a place to freely practice their unconventional version of Christianity. Staunch minimalists, the Puritans distilled the sum of their annual celebrations down to those that provided the fewest distractions to accomplishing work and observing the power of their god. The Puritans had abandoned Christmas, Easter, and all other Catholic and Anglican holidays before leaving England, celebrating two “holidays” outside of the weekly Sabbath: Thanksgiving Day and Fasting Day.
In line with the natural order of things, Fasting Day fell in spring, when the Puritans, who used fasting as a form of prayer, would hold a special day of fasting when the larder ran low and the seeds, so delicate and small, were placed in the coarse, unpredictable soil. Fasting Day commemorated the request for a good growing year, for relative fortune and health among their community. Thanksgiving Day was Fasting Day’s opposite, when the garden’s bounty (and another year of health) was gazed upon in the form of an indulgent spread, as if to say, “Look, we made it!”
The harvest has long held a singular place of reverence in temperate-climate cultures. Acknowledging that plenty is neither a constant nor a given, harvest time is the most exciting, the most culinary diverse, the wealthiest time of the year. Larders full, game fattened and plentiful, we can relax and tell stories, gather family and neighbors to share memories, thoughts, and thanks. It’s a time of year imbued with a sense of the spiritual; being an interval with the fewest external threats, the world (and our mind) opens itself to magic.
We call that meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag The First Thanksgiving, though they, and two centuries of their descendants, didn’t see it that way. Our contemporary Thanksgiving came about through a mingling of the Puritan’s tradition of a religious Thanksgiving Day and regional harvest celebrations, and didn’t crystalize as a national holiday until the 19th Century. Its late November observance (a month or two off mark from the New England harvest season) is explained by the influence of a third holiday (or lack thereof): Christmas. Having given up the Catholic (and in their eyes, inappropriately indulgent) celebration of Christmas, the Puritans slid Thanksgiving back to winter’s parlor, shining that bright, festive meal onto the dark, cold days ahead.
Now entirely secular, Thanksgiving has become the quintessential American feast. Though most of the Americans that prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal today have not harvested or hunted its ingredients, they adhere, by tradition, to a seasonal spread of mostly indigenous foods: squash and pumpkin, turkey, beans, cranberries, corn, and potatoes are New World foods that, in this particular configuration, still symbolize a sort of prosperity wrought from effort.
Thanksgiving today is less a sigh of relief for an agricultural season well played than the kickoff to an exhilarating (and often exhausting) holiday season, yet we maintain an emphasis on gathering with family and friends. And though outside forces (creeping Black Friday sales, football, and takeout, to name a few) increasingly compete with another era’s version of Thanksgiving, it remains in our time a cook’s holiday, venerating the traditional and innovative alike (just look at any cooking magazine’s November issue to see that the line between the two is walked carefully by our collective imagination).
Likely, someone in your life has prepared you a delicious feast on this day. Perhaps you have returned the favor. If you have been so lucky as to do the work or watch it, to smell the sacred rite of plenty, to let your mind slip into a starch-induced journey through memory or musing, then you know Thanksgiving’s least cynical secret: that food, as it is given and received, is a pure expression of love.