The First Vegetarian Thanksgiving
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Rynn Berry
December 2003

[Ed.] "But it's tradition," is the cry when vegetarians wonder why killing an animal should make Thanksgiving special. Vegetarian historian Rynn Berry begs to differ.

The story of the Pilgrim's First Thanksgiving-and turkey's place in it-has been shown to be largely a myth. It was only in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday-mainly as a public relations ploy to whip up a sense of patriotism and national unity during the Civil War. Pilgrims themselves didn't become a part of the national celebration until the 1890s.

The legend that one hundred odd English men and women who landed at Plymouth Harbor feasted on turkey and all the trimmings is a myth. When they first arrived, on November 11 1620, the settlers had so little food that they raised the houses of the Native American inhabitants and made off with stores of beans and corn. There was simply no animal flesh to be had. It is likely that the first Thanksgiving would have had to have been a vegan one, consisting of corn and beans served on pottery that the so-called Pilgrim Fathers stole from the so-called Indians. If, instead of the Plymouth Pilgrims, we go back a decade or so and look to the Jamestown colonists to provide us with role models for Thanksgiving, we will be even more scandalized. In her book Settling with the Indians, Karen Kupperman tells us that the Jamestown colonists were so lacking in farming skills (they spent most of the time digging random holes in the hope of finding gold) that they sank so low as to feed on corpses that they dug up from Native American gravesites. By rights we should be commemorating Thanksgiving by eating corpses. On second thoughts, isn't that exactly what we're doing?

Equal Exchange?

To be sure, the Plymouth Pilgrims were given a friendly reception by the Native Americans: Massassoit, chief of the Wapanoags, Samoset, chief of the Pemaquids, and the ever faithful Squanto. Indeed, the peoples of the region overlooked the Pilgrims' depredations and taught them how to farm, fish, and eventually how to set up trading posts. The reason why the Indians were so receptive to the newcomers is that most of New England had been depopulated by epidemics from prior contacts with European traders and settlers. Europeans had introduced such diseases as diphtheria, TB, streptococcus, scurvy, cholera, typhus measles and chicken pox and smallpox. It's estimated that, before the invasion of Europeans and their diseases, northern America was home to as many as 20 million inhabitants from coast to coast. The diseases ravaged the native populations from south to north America, reducing them by as much as 90 percent.

Europeans were not very unhygienic. While Squanto tried to get the settlers to bathe, he met with little success because the settlers considered it un-Christian to bathe. In cities such as London and Paris, raw sewage ran in the streets. By contrast, most Native Americans were highly skilled agriculturists. When Europeans arrived they found a country that was already cleared and farmed. The settlers simply walked into the indigenous communities that had been depopulated by plague and took over. This is why so many of the early New England towns have the name attached to them-Deerfield, Richfield, and so on. The colonists started their communities in the middle of fields that had been cleared by the indigenous peoples

The Real First Thanksgiving?

The folklore taught in schools has it that the Pilgrims originated the Thanksgiving festival and that they provided the Native Americans with a feast they had never seen. In fact, the opposite is true. In November 1621, one year after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, the Pilgrims celebrated harvest festival jointly with the Native Americans-a harvest festival that the native inhabitants had been celebrating for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Most of the food at this festival was supplied by Native Americans. It was a meal that the Pilgrims had never witnessed, consisting of native American foodstuffs. The main meal was a sort of corn meal mush along with nuts and fruits such as gooseberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, cranberries and a groundnut known as the bogg bean. Popcorn and popcorn balls made by the Indians with maple syrup were served as a sweet. There was a variety of breadstuffs such as cornpone, ashcakes, and hoe cakes, made by Native Americans from their own recipes. It is also possible that other native foods such as pumpkin and squash were served. In his Food Encyclopedia, James Trager tells us that there is a live possibility that turkey wasn't even served. It's true that the Indians provided some deer meat, and game birds, but they were side dishes and not the focus of the meal. So the 1620 Thanksgiving dinner proper in 1620 was probably a totally vegetarian one, because the Pilgrims were unable to find animal flesh. The second Thanksgiving in 1621 was also catered by the Native Americans. Not only was it probably turkeyless, but it was mainly vegetarian. Doesn't it make more sense, therefore, that instead of celebrating Thanksgiving as an orgy of Turkey slaughter, Americans should celebrate a vegetarian harvest festival?

Rynn Berry is the historical advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society. He is the author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes ($15.95) and Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions ($19.95). Copies may be ordered from the author at 159 Eastern Parkway, Suite 2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238. Add $3.00 for  

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