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In September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England, carrying 102 God-fearing passengers, 25 crew and reached Cape Cod after a 66 day journey far north of their intended destination; the mouth of the Hudson river. Moving south into Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims eventually walked ashore at Plymouth Rock. Incredible, having departed the English port of Plymouth, they succeeded in making landfall at the only other same-named place in the world, and all without GPS. Of course they didn’t actually walk ashore; they waded through the surf and stumbled on a big rock, the eponymous Plymouth Rock of yore. Now, I don’t mean to be disrespectful of an important symbol of that fateful first day, but I have seen the rock. It’s just a rock, and so well revered that over the years they moved it, dropped it, cracked it and patched it back together, and is now forlornly embedded under a ridiculously large gazebo. But it’s still just a rock.
Living on the ship over the winter, over half died of malnourishment, scurvy and contagious diseases. Moving ashore in the Spring, the Pilgrims were introduced to Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe (present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island), who had been kidnapped by the explorer John Smith, taken to England, but successfully escaped back to his native land. Squanto acted as an interpreter and mediator between the new arrivals and local Native Americans. He taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers to befriend the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years; one of the few examples of co-existence between European colonists and Native Americans.
After a successful harvest in the Fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford organized a feast with local tribe the Pokanokets, the Wampanoag chief, and his fellow colonists. It is this meal that is considered the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday. Apparently lasting three days there is scant record of the actual foods that were eaten, except as noted by the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow who wrote in his journal that the Governor sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Lacking an oven and adequate supplies of sugar, dessert dishes such as pies or cakes were not featured. Three days does seem a little extravagant. You may think, mistakenly, that today's groaning Thanksgiving tables are laden with same victuals eaten by the original Thanksgivers. Not so apparently. It is more likely that they dined on some of the following; wild turkey, fish, rabbit, chicken, squashes, beans, onions, and other vegetables and nuts. Corn, not good as a vegetable in those days, may have been made into some form of bread possibly sweetened with maple syrup.
Moving along, President Abraham Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, but it wasn’t until 1941 when Congress finally made Thanksgiving Day an official national holiday. It’s a busy time to be traveling, as according to The American Automobile Association 42 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with about 1.5 million by air.
The current tradition of presidential turkey pardons began in 1947, under Harry Truman, but the practice is said to have informally begun with Abraham Lincoln, who granted a pardon to his son Tad's pet turkey. On November 20, 2007, President George W. Bush granted a "pardon" to two turkeys, named May and Flower, at the 60th annual National Thanksgiving Turkey presentation, held in the Rose Garden at the White House. Then, and I kid you not, the two turkeys were then flown to Orlando, Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals for the Disney World Thanksgiving Parade. This rather seems to be an odd tradition for the leader of the free world to carry on, somewhat lacking in gravitas don’t you think?
Interestingly, three towns in the U.S. take their name from the traditional Thanksgiving bird, including Turkey, Texas (pop. 465); Turkey Creek, Louisiana (pop. 363); and Turkey, North Carolina (pop. 270). Note the population numbers. Not much to give thanks for in those towns.
Oh and by the way, turkey does indeed contain tryptophan, an essential amino acid and a natural sedative, but so do a lot of other foods, including chicken, beef, pork, beans and cheese. So basically, turkey tryptophan is an excuse for a good nap after a heavy (fats and carbs) and probably boozy lunch. Who needs an excuse?
And finally, I was once asked if the English celebrate Thanksgiving. Well, I thought, apart from dispatching people like you who ask stupid questions we have nothing to give thanks for. But not wanting to upset this, until now, apparently intelligent person I smiled sweetly and said no we don’t.