Edward Southerland: The bountiful table
Nov 24, 2016
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The Pilgrims’ celebration of survival after the first harsh year in a new and frightening world finds resonance with us all, as all Americans or their ancestors, faced a similar trial somewhere in time. So while harvest thanksgiving festivals are common in the world’s cultures, our celebration has a deeper meaning, one tied to the history as well as the bounty of the land.

That first celebration on New England’s shore was in 1621, less than a year after the Pilgrims landed in the New World on December 11, 1620. Half their number had failed to survive the first winter, and they struggled into the fields in the spring of 1621 with little hope of success. Helped by an Indian named Tisquantum or Squanto, who had lived in England and spoke English, the settlers learned to plant maze and forage for the unfamiliar fruits and plants of the new land.

The wheat, barley, peas and other European crops they planted did poorly, but their twenty acres of Indian corn thrived and ration allowances for the colonist rose dramatically. Thus redeemed, the Pilgrims gave thanks and called for a holiday, a day of Thanksgiving that all might “after a more special manner rejoice together.”

Four men sent out on the hunt came back with enough game to feed the colony for a week. Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy that ruled southeastern New England, came bringing ninety braves and five deer along with other foods of the forest.

For three days, the party feasted on venison, duck, goose, clams, smoked eels, corn breads, leeks, watercress and other wild greens. The meals were capped with wild plums and dried berries and accompanied with wild grape wine. The event was so popular it was repeated over the years, eventually becoming a New England fall tradition.

The first official recognition of the tradition came on June 20, 1676, when the colonial government proclaimed June 29, as a day of Thanksgiving. Still, Thanksgiving remained a sometimes thing.

In 1769 a group of Mayflower descendants formed a club called the Old Colony. A bit snooty in tone, one of the club’s first efforts was to organized a recreation of that first Thanksgiving. After raising a new silk flag and shooting off a cannon, the guests sat down to a nine course repast. Baked Indian whortleberry pudding was followed by bubbling succotash, which in those times was a hearty soup with birds, pork and corned beef. Clams, oysters, codfish, venison and roast ducks and geese, “frost-fish” (tomcod) and eels came next. Apple pie, cranberry tarts, cheese, beer, cider, wine and rum, all to aid digestion, topped it all off.

General Washington proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving through out the united colonies in October, 1777, in part to note the defeat of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and his British army at Saratoga. But national leaders outside New England paid little attention to the holiday. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, scoffed at the notion. But behind the scenes others were determined to keep the idea and the tradition alive.

Sarah Joseph Hale, editor of the Boston Ladies Magazine, campaigned for forty years to have the county offer annual thanks in the Pilgrim tradition. Her efforts bore fruit when the country was mired in a crisis even more dangerous than that which faced the Pilgrims in 1621, the Civil War.

In 1863, President Lincoln decreed that the nation should give thanks on the last Thursday of November. From that point on, the acceptance and popularity of Thanksgiving grew, until it embraced the country from coast to coast. The Pilgrim connection became the blueprint north, south, east, and west, though differences in regional dining produced modifications in the menu.

Turkey, which may or may not have been on that first bill of fare, became the touchstone of all things Thanksgiving, but the oyster stuffing of New England gave way to cornbread down South and newly minted Americans from around the world added touches to reflect their own contributions to their new country.

In the 1930s, President Roosevelt, whose tinkering with the Supreme Court had run aground, tried tinkering with Thanksgiving, moving it from the last Thursday of November to an earlier Thursday to lengthen the shopping period before Christmas. The experiment was a flop, with most people sticking to the later celebration date.

For a few years Texas had two Thanksgivings. The national holiday, proclaimed by the president and the traditional day announced by the governor. Two turkeys, two shots at the pumpkin pie, not a bad idea. Maybe Texas had something there.

The confusion ended in 1941, when congress passed a measure declaring the fourth Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving from there on. And so it is.

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, another Thanksgiving tradition grew to national prominence. It added pigskin the turkey day menu as Americans settled down after stuffing themselves with stuffing to watch football. Coming as it did at the end of the season, Thanksgiving was a fine time for traditional rivals to face off on the gridiron.

For years a Texas Thanksgiving was finished by gathering around a radio and later the television to follow the battle between Texas and Texas A&M. In Texas, there is never too much football, and Denison and Sherman High Schools played out their rivalry on Thanksgiving for many years. The Battle for the Axe is the oldest in the state-- or second oldest, or …, well it depends on who’s counting.

These days the games come from the pros. The Detroit Lions started it off in 1934 when they met, and lost to Papa Bear George Halas and the NFL champion Chicago Bears. In 1966, when the NFL and rival AFL merged, NBC was left without a holiday game, so the Dallas Cowboys offered to fill the slot and gain the national exposure it offered. The Cowboys bested the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that year and have made a habit of Thanksgiving success that has propelled them into the final weeks of the season each year.

So there it is, another year comes round and another chance to create your own Thanksgiving memories. Loosen that belt, set guilty conscience aside for the day and dig in. You are part of a near four hundred year tradition. Oh, yes, plop, plop, fizz, fizz DD that’s part of the tradition too.