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A Thanksgiving Feast

by Tarla Fallgatter

Copyright © 1998 Tarla Fallgatter. All rights reserved.

Just around the corner is the fourth Thursday in November, a United States holiday commemorating the arrival of the Pilgrim fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, and their thanksgiving to God for their safe deliverance from the many hardships they had endured.

Thoughts of Thanksgiving lead to thoughts of family gatherings, harvest decorations and, of course, The Dinner. Should it be somethingnew and different this year, perhaps a black bean stuffing for the turkey? Or maple syrup with the yams? What would Aunt Maude say to that? Better stick with the traditional, the familiar and yes, the most eagerly awaited meal of the entire year.


In 1608, twelve years before they sailed for the New World, the Pilgrims chose exile from England rather than persecution for their beliefs. They escaped to Holland, fully intending to live out their destinies among the Dutch. However, exile was scarcely better than persecution. They were ill-prepared to learn the Dutch language; they were essentially farmers, but now had to make an urban living; they could only find badly paid jobs in the textile, metal and leather trades; and their future governor, William Bradford, was apprenticed to a silk weaver. Describing the Pilgrims' plight, Bradford wrote that passing days held only "ye grimme and grisly face of povertie coming upon them like an armed man."

The Pilgrims took their religious difficulties with them to Holland, divided into quarreling sects, and even found fault with the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church. Their religious and financial problems drove them to the final decision to leave Holland.

Forty-six "Saints," as those who held to their religious rigors were titled, sailed from Holland in July 1620 on the old and erratic ship, Speedwell. At Southampton, England, they joined up with their other ship, Mayflower, and met English emigrants who had been recruited by the joint stock company and would be sailing with them. There was a two-week delay while the Speedwell twice had a change of rig. The leaky Speedwell continued to have problems and was finally left in Plymouth. The Mayflower was not big enough to accommodate the passengers of both ships so some returned to their homes, leaving 102 passengers, of whom 41 were Saints.

Death visited the Pilgrims during the voyage, and finally on November 10 land was sighted off Cape Cod. Sixty-six days out of Plymouth, on November 11, they came into what is now Provincetown Harbor. Before landing, the Mayflower Compact was drawn up and a governor was elected by vote of the freemen. John Carver thus became the Pilgrims' first governor. The site which the Pilgrims chose for colonization was Plymouth, on the mainland, named in 1614 by Captain John Smith who was exploring the coast for the Plymouth Company.

The most telling stroke of luck the Pilgrims had was in the person of an Indian, Squanto, who introduced himself to them soon after their landing. He never left them until the day of his death in 1622, and without him the Pilgrims might never have survived their first winter.

The bitter winter months and inadequate diet took their share of lives. In the winter of 1620-21 Squanto had helped in the construction of houses. Now that fair weather had set in, his knowledge of agriculture guaranteed the colonists' livelihood. Bradford wrote: "He directed them how to set their corne, wher to take fish, and to procure other comodities, and was also their pilott to bring them to unknown places for their profitt..." Every schoolchild knows of his advice to fertilize, with a fish, each hillock where corn was planted.

By most standards, the first harvest was very mediocre, but the only meaningful standard in Plymouth was whether there was enough to survive on. The 20 acres of corn had produced nicely enough and a holiday was decided upon in the small town which now numbered seven private houses and four communal buildings.

The first Thanksgiving lasted for three days and was celebrated with enthusiasm. Captain Myles Standish paraded his group of soldiers in a series of maneuvers; Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, came with 90 braves who competed against the settlers in racing and jumping games; and the celebrants are even reputed to have played games of chance.

The menu was extensive and the food abundant. The Indian braves had added five deer to the store of meat already brought in by a four-man shooting party. They had venison, duck, goose, seafood, eels, white bread, cornbread, leeks, watercress and a variety of greens. Wild plums and dried berries were served for dessert. The very sweet and strong wine they drank was made from wild grapes.

Although turkeys were plentiful, there is no record that they were eaten on the first Thanksgiving holiday. The turkey, according to one doubtful source, is said to have gotten its name from the doctor on Columbus' first voyage, Luis de Torres, who exclaimed "Tukki!" on seeing the unusual fowl for the first time. This is Hebrew for "big bird."

The word "turkey" was familiar to the Pilgrims from their days in England where it meant a guinea fowl. This bird was imported into England by way of Turkey and acquired the name of the country. The resemblance between the guinea fowl and our native bird caused the latter to be called "turkey."

Those other favorites of the modern Thanksgiving, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, were certainly available in their raw state, but were not listed as part of the meal.

While Thanksgiving Day got off to a glorious start, it could easily have been a one-time celebration; it was two years before the Pilgrims held another and only sporadically after that until 1789, when George Washington, during the year of his inauguration, issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation. However, even the men in the presidential office were not of one accord as to the worth of the day. Some merely did not care. New York, with its substratum of the lively and holiday-conscious Dutch, and with a recent influx of New Englanders, officially adopted the day in 1817. In other states the day continued to be celebrated according to regional preferences.

Over the next 200 years occasional national days of thanksgiving were celebrated for specific events, such as a victory over the British or the end of the War of 1812. Individual states instituted regular observances, but there was no regular national Thanksgiving holiday until Sarah Josepha Hale, author of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and editor of Godey's Lady's Book, an influential magazine, began a movement to have the last Thursday in November established as the permanent day of celebration. From 1846 until 1863 Mrs. Hale relentlessly lobbied for the holiday. She not only saw it as a patriotic day but also as a day for families and friends. She devoted the November issue of her magazine to the subject, wrote to congressmen and governors, and petitioned the president. Finally, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.

After President Franklin Roosevelt tried to change the date to two weeks earlier to encourage a longer Christmas shopping season, Congress passed a law in 1941 that permanently fixed the date as the fourth Thursday in November.

Various customs have through the years become associated with Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving was once more of a religious holiday than it now is; the playing of sports has been a Thanksgiving custom from the beginning; and in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there is a full-dress re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving. The quaintly attired citizens march to Burial Hill, the resting place of the victims of that first dreadful winter, and there hold a memorial and Thanksgiving service.

Schools and church classes around the country also use the Thanksgiving theme as a basis for playlets and episodes put on to educate the children in American history.

Feasting became a national pastime. The holiday became a focus for parades and football games. The first big parade was the 1921 Gimbel's procession in Philadelphia, and professional football has been an obsession for decades. In some of our metropolises, long and elaborate parades are held, not only to portray the Spirit of Thanksgiving but also to welcome the Christmas season and the arrival of Santa Claus. Since 1924, the most famous of these parades,Macy's New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade, has made its way down Broadway on Thanksgiving morning. It features giant balloons, floats, and marching bands. Thousands of people have thronged the streets to watch the spectacle.

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become an even more popular holiday, as a prelude to the Christmas season, as a gala sports occasion and as a time for families and friends to enjoy getting together for what is often a long vacation weekend. Distant loved ones are remembered in many ways. Gifts of fruit and flowers are not uncommon, and the custom of sending greetings especially suited to the occasion is widespread.


Traditionally, the Thanksgiving meal was hosted by grandparents, or by the eldest members of the family. But in recent years thedinner is often given by a middle-aged couple who invite both old and young to join them. The meal brings the family together, and people are reminded of its history. The family photo albums are taken out, the old stories are repeated, and the members of the group refresh their memories of the past. Very often people tell stories about the cooking disasters or near-disasters of previous Thanksgiving meals. The stories tell how the family has weathered difficulties, forgiven each other for problems in the past, and come through it all healthily and with good humor.

Sociologists say that Thanksgiving also celebrates the wholeness of the family even if the family is actually no longer whole. The occasion is often used to commemorate the links that are left. It has become commonplace for the children of divorced parents to attend more than one Thanksgiving dinner, eating the main meal with one part of their family and going to another part for dessert.

When families immigrate to the United States, they often keep to the foods of their native country. They also tend to continue celebrating their traditional holidays. The one American event that gets incorporated into the holiday cycle of just about every new arrival is Thanksgiving, complete with all the traditional foods: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and cranberries.


The first Thanksgiving feast is reputed to have taken place in 1621 with the Pilgrims and some local Massachusetts Indians in attendance. It is said that the first edible game the Pilgrim fathers found was the wild turkey, so thenceforth turkey was always eaten on Thanksgiving Day. Pumpkin pie is also traditional, and in Massachusetts Marlborough pie is the specialty.

If you would like to make your own Marlborough pie, here's how to do it:

First combine 1C apple sauce with 3 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1C sugar, 4 eggs, 2 Tbsp. melted butter, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg and a pinch of salt to make the pie filling. Pour this into a partially baked 9" pastry shell, and place in a 350°F oven. Bake for 1 hour or until the top is golden and the filling is set. Let cool completely before cutting.

--The Food of the Western World, by Theodora Fitzgibbon

The traditions of these colonial celebrations go back as long as men have cultivated the earth. In biblical times, the Hebrews celebrated the Feast of the Tabernacles and a bit later, the Greeks put on an annual party to honor Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. The Romans feted Ceres, the goddess of grain, in a holiday called Cerealia. In the Middle Ages the French celebrated the Feast of St. Martin of Tours as Martinmas, which featured a gala goose dinner.

The Pilgrims' three-day festival in 1621 is credited by most as the beginning of what Americans know as Thanksgiving. The celebration was proclaimed by Governor William Bradford to commemorate the survival of the colony through its first difficult year. Of the original 102 settlers who arrived at Plymouth in the winter of 1620, only 55 were still alive by the spring of 1621.

Perhaps the entire colony would have perished were it not for the help of the Wampanoag Indians, who taught the colonists how to hunt and fish, as well as how to cultivate corn and other native vegetables. These American crops kept the Pilgrims alive.

On that memorable feast day they sat down to eat with no great assurance that there would be any food before them on the morrow. But they were free, and freedom is a magic sauce for the poorest dish. It is relish and sustenance for the soul. Brewsters, Bradfords, Carvers, Winslows, Cushmans, Allertons, John Alden the carpenter, Miles Standish the captain, what a dauntless company! All of us have inherited some of their passion for freedom. For this we can give thanks on this holiday which they unknowingly bequeathed to us.

The assembling of all the Plymouth colonists in one party for Thanksgiving is the forerunner of the assembling of families for the holiday. Young and old, rich or poor, pretty or plain, families come together on The Day.

Traditionally, people prefer to eat special dishes at an annual feast and like to taste those foods only in connection with that particular event. The food becomes part of what makes the festival noteworthy, and Thanksgiving is no exception. For many years, cranberries were exclusive to the Thanksgiving meal. Some people made their cranberry relish from fresh cranberries, but most people bought cranberry jelly in a can and served it in disks. The shape and dark red color of the berries were very distinctive.

Giving food a distinctive shape, and serving it only in connection with a particular celebration, is an old technique for making a food unique to a specific festival.

Some historians believe that the traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato recipe was created as a symbol of unification. A Southern vegetable, the sweet potato was candied with maple syrup, a Northern ingredient. Thanksgiving is a time for stuffing, and stuffing a food has always been an important part of festival recipes. It's a way of making a dish "fancy" without necessarily making it expensive. The work that goes into stuffing the turkey is clearly visible to everyone at the table. A stuffed turkey is more satisfactory than an unstuffed bird because it shows more work, adds more food and extends the number of flavors. It also sends a very clear message that life is plump, full and bursting with abundance.

Sociologists point out that at any feast or festival we try to do two things: we make an effort to show that we are united, while also making an effort to show our individuality. The turkey and the stuffing symbolize both at Thanksgiving. The turkey is a universal container into which each family stuffs its particular stuffing. The stuffing shows a family's regional and individual history, and in some cases its wealth, but it is usually made according to The Family Recipe.

Here is my favorite stuffing recipe:

Chestnut, Apple and Italian Sausage Stuffing

8 oz. Italian sweet sausage, casings removed, crumbled

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

8 slices stale whole wheat bread

1C chicken stock

5 Tbsp. dry white wine

2 tsp. sugar

1C canned chestnuts, broken into large pieces

1C chopped tart Granny Smith apple

1 Tbsp. fresh sage, coarsely chopped

1/4C Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

salt and pepper to taste

1/4C toasted pecan halves

Heat a pan over medium heat and add the sausage. Sauté until just brown. Add the onion and celery and sauté until the celery is bright green, about 5 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the bread slices on a cookie sheet and bake until crisp (about 10 minutes). Remove from the oven and cut into 1" squares. Combine with the sausage mixture and toss gently.

Combine the stock and wine in a small pan and reduce by half over moderate heat, stir in the sugar and simmer for a few minutes longer. Toss the chestnuts in the glaze until completely coated. Remove with a slotted spoon, then repeat the procedure with the apples.

Add the chestnuts and apples to the sausage mixture along with the sage and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix in the pecans. Mix gently with a fork, being careful to keep the stuffing fluffy, not compressed. If the stuffing is too dry, add more stock to moisten it.

Makes: 6C

Restaurant Recommendation:

For those of you heading to or via Chicago and interested in treating yourself to "another" meal of a lifetime I can recommend a stopover at Charlie Trotter's. I recently slipped away from Southern California for a special Friday evening rendezvous with my husband as he made his way back home from a week on the East Coast. Very innovative and delicious! Worth a detour and worth a journey!


Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, "sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her "Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.


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