Thanksgiving: 3 Ways (This Thanksgiving We're Going to Party Like It's 1621)

By Max Wong on 19 November 2009 12 comments

Thanksgiving is my very favorite holiday. I prefer it to the December holidays, New Years, and even my birthday. I prefer it because it is one of the only holidays that have not succumbed to commercialization and become a special day for candy and home decor companies to push their wares. Even though it's now a secular holiday, after three centuries, Thanksgiving is still a celebration that's centered on being a generous, grateful, and compassionate human being.

A lot of Thanksgivings are about family dysfunction and weird, terrible food involving aspic and marshmallow topping.

That is not how I roll.

I'm celebrating Thanksgiving three times this year. (Which really isn't that weird considering Florida, Texas and Virginia all had Thanksgiving celebrations before the Plymouth Colony made it a yearly holiday in 1621.) And really, wouldn't this country be better off if we focused more attention on harvest festivals that are about being thankful for what we already have and not holidays that center on deep discounts at the mall? In the spirit of the Plymouth colonists' and Wampanoag Confederacy's first dinner, I'm going to follow their example on what makes a good party.

In addition to wild turkey and a variety of winter vegetables, the guests at the first Plymouth Thanksgiving also enjoyed swan, venison and seal. Taking a cue from what is surely the ultimate pot luck dinner, I hosted a Thanksgiving pot luck for my Chowhounds foodies group, on November 15th, before everyone went home for the real deal. Last year's foodies party was so epic that I ended up with 40 pounds of leftovers, including four untouched pumpkin pies and two turkey carcasses that I turned into five gallons of turkey and rice soup. It was enough to cater three Thanksgiving Redux parties, which was tiresome, but delicious.

Although I managed to successfully entertain fifty guests in my 1000 square foot house, we almost immediately ran out of protein. I thought that two twenty-pound turkeys would be enough for all the carnivores to have a decent serving of white or dark meat. What I didn't count on was how much the birds would shrink during cooking.

Instead of spending hours basting and fretting over the oven, I delegated the turkey preparation to the neighborhood bodega that is famous for its Armenian-style rotisserie chicken. For $20 they agreed to rotisserie my two turkeys. The roasting was perfect. The birds were succulent and juicy with dark brown, crackly skin that melted in your mouth...but at half their original mass.

This year I'm planning a little better, first by asking all my guests to bring some Tupperware for leftovers, so I don't have so much surplus. In addition to turkeys (that will be rotisserie cooked again), I'm also serving a Honey Baked Ham purchased with an expired $50 ham gift certificate from 1997 that my mom found stuck to the back of her kitchen junk drawer. (Thanks to an awesome law in California, gift certificates have no expiration, a legal loophole that my mother can't exploit in Arizona.) Now if only I can get other people to bring some eel and lobster as alternate main courses...

Strays Party

My actual Thanksgiving dinner will be an all-day event I call the Strays Party. Up until two years ago, I hosted a Strays Party where I would start cooking at 10 in the morning and wouldn't stop until 10 at night. In the fabulous Wampanoag Indian tradition of snacking all day, people who were alone for the holiday could show up, eat and leave whenever they wanted. (Each year I also pick up a number of friends who eat at my house to subsidize what they know will be a disastrous meal cooked by mom. At least they know they'll eat well at least once that day.) The Strays Party is super fun, because I never know who is going to show up when, so every hour it's like a different party with different guests. Over the years my Strays menu got more and more elaborate and byzantine. I made elk meatloaf sandwiches on focaccia. I made Ovaltine gelato. I made Turducken.

Thanksgiving Breakfast

Two years ago I wised up — I realized that the thing my friends were dying to eat every year wasn't my Thanksgiving dinner, it was my Thanksgiving breakfast which consists of baked curried fruit salad and Swedish pancakes topped with my homemade cranberry preserve and creme fraiche. So, for the past two years, I've still had a Strays Party but only served the pancakes with different toppings all day. Let me just say that my kitchen stays much cleaner with all-day Thanksgiving Breakfast and my friends are still excited to come over.

Thanksgiving Redux

During the first week of December I am going to host Thanksgiving Redux. This is a potluck dinner where everyone brings his or her Thanksgiving leftovers to share. This a great way to squeeze in one more dinner with friends before everyone's year end schedule gets too crazy, without spending any money on food.

(Author's Note: Squanto and Samoset were the two Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive after the colony nearly perished from the harsh New England winter. They taught the newly minted Americans how to fish for eel, fertilize their crops and grow corn. The 1621 Thanksgiving was a celebration of the colony's first successful harvest. In honor of Squanto's and Somoset's generosity, I am going to raffle off local honey and homemade organic preserves at this year's Thanksgiving Redux as a fundraiser for Heifer International that will provide ten communities in Tanzania with honeybees and specialized education in resource management and beekeeping.)

This is a guest post by Max Wong, who blogs at My Roman Apartment. Read more by Max:

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Guest's picture

first, what in the world is aspic?

second, while Thanksgiving might not have been subjected to (too much) commercialization, I think it's still been white Americanized. It's important that people understand the Native American viewpoint. The history books in this country have been written by the white folks. Take a look at
which is dated, but has a complete bibliography too.

The redux dinner is actually the best idea I've heard for using leftovers.

Guest's picture

The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from
religious persecution. ... The Puritans and the
Pilgrims saw themselves as the "Chosen Elect" mentioned
in the book of Revelation. They strove to "purify" first
themselves and then everyone else of everything they did
not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. [They] ..thanks to God for the devastating plague of
smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag
Indians who had been their benefactors. --- Read more here :

Guest's picture

I'm a bit confused by this statement.

"Florida, Texas and Virginia all had Thanksgiving celebrations before the Plymouth Colony"

On what basis is this relevant to Thanksgiving today?

I did some fact checking.

On December 4, 1619, 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred, which comprised about 8,000 acres (32 km²) on the north bank of the James River, near Herring Creek, in an area then known as Charles Cittie, about 20 miles (32 km) upstream from Jamestown, where the first permanent settlement of the Colony of Virginia had been established on May 14, 1607.
The group's charter required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a "day of thanksgiving" to God.

So yes, Virginia has a A thanksgiving back then but "The modern Thanksgiving holiday traces its origins from a 1621 celebration at the Plymouth Plantation".

Florida did not become part of the United States until 1819 when it was ceded to the USA by Spain. Texas did not become part of the United States until 1845 having previously been a separate country, The Republic of Texas.

As President, on October 3, 1789, George Washington made the following proclamation and created the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America

Neither Texas nor Floria were part of the United States in 1789.

Guest's picture

Yikes! Why all the hate on this article?

I would like the idea of multiple thanksgivings more if I wasn't FORCED into them. Both my parents and DH's parents are divorced, which means we have four thanksgiving dinners to attend, three on the same day! We skip breakfast and go to my mother's side at 11 or 12. Then to DH's father's side at 2, and my father's side at about 5. We celebrate with DH's mom the Saturday after.

Somewhere in that mess I also like to throw a "Very Vegan Thanksgiving Bash" for my less mainstream friends.

Guest's picture

Community News / East Texas Review
As history teaches us, the greatest conflicts and the bloodiest wars throughout time have been waged because of belief systems and boundaries. We can trace this from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition through Hitler to the “ethnic cleansing” now going on around the world. This mentality does not tolerate differing political, social and religious beliefs, and it does not hesitate to seize another’s land and property if it suits a purpose.

It was the custom in European countries to mark the boundaries of land with fences ranging from palisades to low rock walls. Once word spread throughout Europe and Spain about this wonderful land called The Americas, which was wild, untamed and unclaimed, this new territory became a safe haven for outlaws, prisoners, and the radical element of politics, social structure and religious practices - the violent and the non-conformists.

Even though the first explorers and early settlers had been warned about the heathen savages found in the “New World”, they found the First Peoples of this land curious about these strange people, and more than willing to teach them how to survive and live well in their new surroundings. The flow of people into this country was slow in the beginning and, even though there was the occasional hothead among the newcomers, life was generally a peaceful co-existence for almost 150 years.

However, as the trickle of settlers turned into a steady river, the atmosphere began to change. In 1614, a band of English explorers had landed in the vicinity of Massachusetts Bay. When they returned home, they took with them Native slaves they had captured, and left smallpox behind. By the time the Puritan pilgrims sailed the Mayflower into southern Massachusetts Bay, entire nations of New England Natives were already extinct, having been totally exterminated by smallpox.

The Puritans were religious radicals being driven into exile out of England. Since their story is well known, I will not repeat it here. They settled and built a colony which they called the “Plymouth Plantation”, near the ruins of a former Native village of the Pawtuxet Nation. Only one Pawtuxet had survived, a man named Squanto, who had spent time as a slave to the English. Since he understood the language and customs of the Puritans, he taught them to use the corn growing wild from the abandoned fields of the village, taught them to fish, and about the foods, herbs and fruits of this land. Squanto also negotiated a peace treaty between the Puritans and the Wampanoag Nation, a very large Native nation which totally surrounded the new Plymouth Plantation. Because of Squanto’s efforts, the Puritans enjoyed almost 15 years of peaceful harmony with the surrounding Natives, and they prospered.
At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a great feast following the harvest of food from their new farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoags. The feast was followed by 3 days of “thanksgiving” celebrating their good fortune. This feast produced the image of the first Thanksgiving that we all grew up with as children. However, things were doomed to change.

Until approximately 1629, there were only about 300 Puritans living in widely scattered settlements around New England. As word leaked back to England about their peaceful and prosperous life, more Puritans arrived by the boatloads. As the numbers of Puritans grew, the question of ownership of the land became a major issue. The Puritans came from the belief of individual needs and prosperity, and had no concept of tribal living or group sharing. It was clear that these heathen savages had no claim on the land because it had never been subdued, cultivated and farmed in the European manner, and there were no fences or other boundaries marked. The land was clearly “public domain”, and there for the taking. This attitude met with great resistance from the original Puritans who held their Native benefactors in high regard. These first Puritan settlers were summarily excommunicated and expelled from the church.
With Bible passages in their hands to justify their every move, the Puritans began their march inland from the seaside communities. Joined by British settlers, they seized land, took the strong and young Natives as slaves to work the land, and killed the rest. When they reached the Connecticut Valley around 1633, they met a different type of force. The Pequot Nation, very large and very powerful, had never entered into the peace treaty negotiated by Squanto as had other New England Native nations. When 2 slave raiders were killed by resisting Natives, the Puritans demanded that the killers be turned over. The Pequot refused. What followed was the Pequot War, the bloodiest of the Native wars in the northeast.

An army of over 200 settlers was formed, joined by over 1,000 Narragansett warriors. Because of the lack of fighting experience, and the vast numbers of the fierce Pequot warriors, Commander John Mason elected not to stage an open battle. Instead, the Pequot were attacked, one village at a time, in the hours before dawn. Each village was set on fire with its sleeping Natives burned alive. Women and children over 14 were captured to be sold as slaves; other survivors were massacred. The Natives were sold into slavery in The West Indies, the Azures, Spain, Algiers and England; everywhere the Puritan merchants traded. The slave trade was so lucrative that boatloads of 500 at a time left the harbors of New England.
In 1641, the Dutch governor of Manhattan offered the first scalp bounty; a common practice in many European countries. This was broadened by the Puritans to include a bounty for Natives fit to be sold for slavery. The Dutch and Puritans joined forces to exterminate all Natives from New England, and village after village fell. Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stanford, Connecticut, the churches of Manhattan announced a day of “thanksgiving” to celebrate victory over the savages. This was the 2nd Thanksgiving. During the feasting, the hacked off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhattan like soccer balls.

The killing took on a frenzy, with days of thanksgiving being held after each successful massacre. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape. Their chief was beheaded, and his head placed on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where it remained for 24 years. Each town held thanksgiving days to celebrate their own victories over the Natives until it became clear that there needed to be an order to these special occasions. It was George Washington who finally brought a system and a schedule to thanksgiving when he declared one day to be celebrated across the nation as Thanksgiving Day.
It was Abraham Lincoln who decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War, on the same day and at the same time he was ordering troops to march against the Sioux in Minnesota.

In our society, it is not uncommon for our modern celebrations to have arisen from evil beginnings. Over the centuries, Thanksgiving has become a special day to join with loved ones in an offering of thanks for our blessings. Some give their time to help with the homeless and hungry. It is now a day of giving, and of honor, and of true thanksgiving.

In your Thanksgivings to come, I would ask that you offer a silent prayer for the spirits of those who were sacrificed so long ago. You and I did not commit these atrocities, and we are certainly not responsible for the behavior of our ancestors be they red, white, black or yellow.

However, we are charged with the responsibility of learning our true history, and of having the courage to behave with honor and dignity toward our fellow man. If the lessons of history are not learned, they will repeat themselves.

Guest's picture

Comments—not soapbox. I read the first sentence of your essay, immediately understood that I would be preached to and promptly skipped to the last two paragraphs, which succinctly makes the point.

Guest's picture

I"m sorry Max. Folks around here just seem not to be thankful for much, really. I personally enjoyed your post, inaccuracies and historical oppression aside. Don't we live in a wonderful time, that we have such bounty to be able to worry about what one person's ancestors did to another person's ancestors, rather than keeping warm and putting the next meal in our tummies (or the next season's meals in the pantry)? Really, we should just be thankful for the plenty we enjoy and how much we've come to enjoy and appreciate each other.

The Thanksgiving redux thing is one of our favorite traditions. We do it every year, and it's really a relaxing way to spend the Friday after the holiday, with friends who were visiting their own families the day before. It's also fun to try other people's family favorites...

Thankfully, no one has ever shown up with aspic.

Guest's picture

We go to "Family Thanksgiving" on the actual holiday, which consists of the overly dry turkey, horribly bland and dry stuffing, unseasoned mashed potatoes, jello salad, green bean casserole with fried onions, and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. DH's family swears that they are amazing cooks, and we pretty much have to go or it will become a huge family argument (and no, no one else can cook or bring anything or MIL gets really offended). Then a week after Thanksgiving we have "Good Thanksgiving" where I essentially cook the whole turkey dinner again at my house, but this time making the food actually moist and flavorful, adding in good recipes, and using no jello or marshmallows. It used to be just me, DH, and DS in attendance, but then one year my sister and her family starting coming (her in-laws are just as bad at cooking), and then the next year DH swore his sister to secrecy and she came with her family, and now it is to the point where "Good Thanksgiving is just as crowded as "Family Thanksgiving", but a whole lot more fun.

Guest's picture

We use to do the same thing for years. My mom could never cook a moist bird no matter what. Love her to death but OMG! DH's family likes to cook the bird way to long & burn it every time GRRR! Now, I have just taken over the task of Thanksgiving dinner at my house. The first 2 years was hard as it upset a few people but now everyone cannot wait to come over! I let my mom make her pies & his mom make any side dish she wants & everyone is happy!

Guest's picture

Harvest festivals go way back and the Thanksgiving for the USA was recorded as a big deal true. BUT they got the idea from the Bible (a celebration God ordered to thank HIM for the harvest)

The Bible is also were they took many of their life examples of how to live and put them into motion. Right or Wrong they at least had a standard to govern their action and a life style that allows us today to freely discuss their fame.

Guest's picture
M. Wong

Hi all--thanks for your thoughtful comments about Thanksgiving. Yes, there's plenty of mythology about this event. But some of the mythology actually makes for a nice holiday, no?

Regarding the actually history, Juan Ponce De Leon's landing in Florida in 1513 was celebrated with a "Day of Thanksgiving" and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado held a Thanksgiving Service and meal in 1541 in Texas. Jamestown, Virginia has two other claims of "the orginal" Thanksgiving (in 1607 and 1610). Naturally, Native Americans had been having harvest celebrations long before any of these Europeans showed up! How are these relevant to Thanksgiving today? Well, all of them were celebrations of gratitude, to God, to Mother Nature, to Lady Luck, etc...But yes, the 1621 Thanksgiving is considered by most to be the basis of our current holiday, which is why the title of this piece references that date.

Squanto (aka Tisquantum) indeed had a hard life. He learned English when he was abducted from the US by George Weymouth who was exploring Maine in 1605 and was then resold and re-enslaved by various English ship captains. When he finally managed to get back home to the US in 1619, he discovered that his tribe, the Patuxet, had been wiped out by a plague (probably small pox) during his absence. His old village site has been reborn as Plymouth.

With regards to his work helping the Pilgrims, even though he fostered alliances, ultimately, he wasn't allowed to straddle the two worlds and became distrusted both by his adopted tribe and the Plymouth Colony. Some historians actually speculate that he was assassinated by Wampanoags for his dealing with the Pilgrims. This is why my fundraising for Heifer International is in honor of the Native American liaisons who generously gave their knowledge to their newly arrived neighbors and not, say, Myles Standish.

Guest's picture

Thanksgiving breakfast sounds awesome. Why wait to have a feast in the afternoon. We are going to do that this year. Thanks for sharing.