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November 22, 2004

UMBC Food Scholar Warren Belasco Tests Our Thanksgiving Trivia

American Studies Professor Warren Belasco discusses the origins of the Thanksgiving feast. Belasco is an editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (2004).

Q. Where do our Thanksgiving traditional foods (i.e., turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, etc.) come from?

WB: Most of these foods did originate in the New World, although south of the border. The versions we eat today would be unrecognizable to our ancestors. Many Native Americans did not eat turkey, as the birds were considered either unclean because they ate insects, or sacred and reserved for ceremonial feathers. The original colonists were probably familiar with the European variety of the bird and ate them for this reason. Potatoes and pumpkins originated in Latin America, but the Europeans ate them in entirely different forms. Cranberries are one of the very few foods that are truly indigenous to the Northeastern US and were used largely to dress up mutton. I don't know much about the origins of stuffing (or "dressing" in the South), except that all cuisines seem to do it. What may distinguish the American version is its eclectic nature.

Q. Did the Pilgrims eat any of the foods we find on our tables today?

WB: It's important to recognize that we know very little about what "the Pilgrims" ate--except that they had a tough time and learned virtually everything needed for survival from the natives. I'm pretty sure they would not recognize anything on our tables today. Their birds were much smaller, and they fed potatoes and corn to their pigs. I doubt very much that they would have wasted valuable bread by stuffing it in a turkey. Rather, bread was baked infrequently and was used mostly to sop up stews and soups.

Q. Is there anything that may have been served at the first Thanksgiving feast that we would be surprised or even horrified to find on our tables?

WB: There was no first Thanksgiving feast in New England and we know very little about how ordinary people actually ate in earlier times, except that life was hard, food was scarce and fat was highly prized for its caloric efficiency. But when those settlers feasted, it's most likely that they drank a considerable amount of hard cider. Contrary to myth, the Puritans did not disdain alcohol, which was much safer than the polluted local water. In addition, they did not have a separate dining room, used wooden cups and plates, did not use forks (which were considered a "vain affliction"), ate with their fingers--and in a great hurry.

Q. What about the turkeys? Were they as big and juicy as our genetically enhanced birds?

WB: Turkeys were not associated with Thanksgiving until the late 19th century. By that time, Americans were eating domesticated European birds, as the wild American varieties were already extinct. In contrast, in 1621 William Bradford reported flocks of up to five thousand wild birds. I'm sure those birds were small and tough. The bird we eat today did not take its present ultra-plump, huge form until the mid-20th century, thanks in large part to government-funded research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beltsville, Md. labs. Whereas turkey production used to be confined to small independent growers, since the 1960s the industry has become much more industrialized and consolidated--much like chicken production.

Q. Do Americans have the right idea about food and how it relates to Thanksgiving? Would the Pilgrims have endorsed the annual stomach-stuffing ritual we partake in?

WB: No and No. Most of us know nothing about the history of the holiday, not to mention nutrition and health. Nonetheless, Thanksgiving may well be our most widely observed (and perhaps even most enjoyed) national ritual. While its roots and components are much more recent and fluid than we realize, the ritual has taken on a life of its own. The post-Thanksgiving shopping binge is a good example. I sense that all of this would have been an abomination to the Puritans, whose ideals of moderation, virtue, and restraint were much closer to ancient Athens than to modern Baltimore. But, as I've said, the Puritans had nothing to do with any of this. Far more influential were the Victorian ministers and writers who pushed for the holiday--and the U.S. government, whose unrelenting support of agricultural research and industrialization created our cheap and bountiful American food supply. If we want to give thanks for the meal, it should go to those federal "bench scientists" and bureaucrats at the USDA.

Bon appetit!

-Steffany Magid

Posted by dwinds1 at November 22, 2004 12:00 AM