Speaking Out: The First Thanksgiving
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Rynn Berry
December 2006

Itís that time of year again when hundreds of millions of turkeys will be killed to tickle the American palate. An ethical vegetarian could not fail to ask the question: How did a turkey come to be at the center of the ritual of Thanksgiving? It certainly doesnít belong there, for the story of the Pilgrimsí First Thanksgiving is thought by many to have been largely a myth. It was only in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. Pilgrims didnít become a part of the official national celebration until the 1890s.

To be sure, the Plymouth Pilgrims were given a friendly reception by the Indians: Massassoit, the chief of the Wapanoags, Samoset the chief of the Pemaquids and the ever-faithful Squanto. Indeed, they overlooked the Pilgrimsí depredations and taught them how to farm and fish and eventually how to set up trading posts.

In November 1621, (the year after the landing at Plymouth) the Pilgrims celebrated jointly with the Indians a harvest festival ó a festival that the Indians had been celebrating for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The concept would also have been familiar to the Pilgrims from the ďHarvest HomeĒ celebrations in their native England. Much of the food at this festival was supplied by the Indians, and consisted of native American foodstuffs, including a sort of corn meal mush along with nuts and fruits such as gooseberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, cranberries and a groundnut groundnut known as the bogg bean. Popcorn and popcorn balls made by the Indians with maple syrup were served as a sweet. There was also a variety of breadstuffs, such as corn pone and ashcakes, made by the Indians. It is possible that pumpkins and squash were served. The legend that the celebrants feasted on turkey with all the trimmings is a myth. In his Food Encyclopedia, James Trager tells us that itís likely that turkey wasnít even served. Itís true that some deer meat, and game birds were offered, but itís likely they were side dishes and not the main focus of the meal. So the first Pilgrim/Indian Thanksgiving in 1621 was not only almost certainly turkeyless, chances are it was mainly vegetarian. We should be celebrating Thanksgiving not as an orgy of turkey slaughter, but as a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian harvest festival.

Rynn Berry is the historical adviser to the North American Vegetarian Society. He is the author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes.


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