Monday, November 28, 2016

That first Thanksgiving feast

Having now passed the safe harbor of Thanksgiving, a holiday which makes so few demands upon its celebrants, we now face the frenzied weeks as Christmas approaches. Sure, some stores have had Christmas decorations up since September, and the pile of mail-order catalogs already delivered to each home weighs the same as a small vehicle -- but it's not until after our Thanksgiving dinners that the holiday tempo shifts into high gear.
It was not always this way, though few today would believe it.
That first Thanksgiving, in 1621, was quite different than the event just concluded. The original Thanksgiving menu was fowl and venison, roasted in the yard on spits; pottages made by cooking corn (and possibly wheat) in a broth of stewed meat; fish, eels, and shellfish; and plenty of beer. They all drank plenty of beer (including the children) that first Thanksgiving, because they felt the water was not safe. (It probably was not safe to drink the water.)
I looked in the “Joy of Cooking” but didn’t find a good recipe for eel, although there was one for squirrel. Perhaps you can substitute eel for the squirrel.
At that first Thanksgving, everyone would have used spoons, pointed sharp knives and their fingers; the first Pilgrims probably had no forks.
After their feast, original festivities would have included footraces and shooting contests. The first Thanksgiving celebrants “amongst other Recreations, exercised [their] arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst therest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninety men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted,” wrote Edward Winslow on the 11th of December, 1621.
The Pilgrims had much for which to give thanks.
"You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom; our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors."
The success of their crops meant they had a chance to survive the coming winter.
Massasoyt and his men "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."
Winslow listed the bounty for which they were thankful: "I never in my life remember a more seasonable year, than we have here enjoyed: and if we have once but kine, horses, and sheep, I make no question, but men might live as contented here as in any part of the world. For fish and fowl, we have great abundance, fresh cod in the summer is but coarse meat with us, our bay is full of lobsters all the summer, and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds, all the winter we have mussels and othus at our doors: oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the springtime the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs: here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of three sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a damson: abundance of roses, white, red, and damask: single, but very sweet indeed; the country wanteth only industrious men to employ."
Today we have much to be thankful for, as well. Even with the troubles facing our nation, "men might live as contented here as in any part of the world," and it my hope we will. As Winslow concluded his letter: "Resting in Him."
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who wishes his sweet daughter Elizabeth a very happy 30th birthday. This column was originally published in the Kerrville Daily Times November 26, 2016.

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