The First Thanksgiving Dinner (as depicted in the New York Times).--

For Thanksgiving 2004, I posted an account of the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Last Thanksgiving, the New York Times ran a bizarre op-ed by Professor James E. McWilliams of Texas State University at San Marcos on our anachronistic views of the food served at the first Thanksgiving.

McWilliams in the 2005 New York Times:

They Held Their Noses, and Ate

No contemporary American holiday is as deeply steeped in culinary tradition as Thanksgiving. Not only is the day centered on a feast, but it's also a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods - usually some combination of turkey, corn, cranberries, squash and pumpkin pie. Decorated with these dishes, the Thanksgiving table has become a secular altar upon which we worship America's pioneering character, a place to show reverence for the rugged Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in peace, sat with the Indians as equals and indulged in the New World's cornucopia with gusto.

But you might call this comfort food for a comfort myth.

The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist — the colonial minister Charles Woodmason called it "exceedingly filthy and most execrable." Our comfort food, in short, was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence.

But the colonial minister Charles Woodmason quoted by McWilliams was not a Pilgrim writing in the 1620s. Woodmason was a famously prejudiced Anglican missionary to backcountry Carolina, describing the habits of Irish and Scots-Irish settlers in his diary during 1766-68, over 140 years after the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving. Here is the sort of food that Woodmason was complaining that the poor Appalachians were eating (and not eating):

"Clabber, butter, fat mushy bacon, cornbread," [Woodmason] wrote, "as for tea and coffee they know it not . . . neither beef nor mutton nor beer, cyder or anything better than water." . . . Woodmason noted that "the people are all from Ireland, and live wholly on butter, milk, clabber and what in England is given to hogs.”

So Woodmason’s derisive comments, quoted by McWilliams, refer not to the diet of the Pilgrims, but to the very different diet common in Appalachia on the eve of American Revolution. Clabber (a form of sour milk somewhat like cottage cheese or yogurt) was a common food in Northern England, but was treated as only fit for animals in Southern England. I located no evidence that the Plymouth pilgrims ate this staple of the Carolina backcountry diet. While the pilgrims had brought some bacon and butter on the Mayflower, the voyage was so poorly provisioned that it has been speculated that it was quickly gone after arriving. The Pilgrims probably had little or no milk, since they had no cows, though there is a small chance that they had a goat. And Woodmason’s complaint that the settlers had no coffee or tea would never have been made by a 1620s pilgrim since they had probably never tasted either one. In 1620, tea had not yet been introduced into England, and England’s first coffeehouse was founded in 1650 (there were 3,000 such shops by 1675).

Woodmason also complained that the food in 1767 backcountry Carolina was all boiled, but the Pilgrims favored roasting. And Woodmason was disgusted by the whisky drinking in western Carolina in the 1760s, while the Pilgrims didn’t drink whisky.

As for Indian corn, which was a staple of the Pilgrim’s diet, the sources I consulted do not support the notion of revulsion to that food either. In the very December 11, 1621 letter that described the 1621 Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow advises the next group of settlers not to bring more rice than they will need for the voyage because of the attractiveness of Indian corn:

Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, makes as pleasant meat as rice; therefore spare that, unless to spend by the way.

McWilliams goes on:

Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food — much less foods native to North America. Thanksgiving celebrations occurred irregularly at best after 1621 (the year of the supposed first Thanksgiving) and colonists observed them as strictly religious events (conceivably by fasting).

It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values.

If you read the original account of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, you can see that McWilliams is wrong: there is “evidence to support the holiday's early association with food,” in particular, “foods native to North America.”

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 [here Winslow apparently means alewives], 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 have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they 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.