A Bit of Dirt – Fall 2009

The full pdf copy of this edition is available here.

Editor’s Cuff Notes – by Dan Willis.
The tradition of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving comes from both myth and legend. Few people realize that the Pilgrims never celebrated Thanksgiving in 1621 or any year thereafter. President George Washington made it a one-time Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November (which could  occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939 and Congress approved that day in 1941.

The Pilgrims’ first mythological Thanksgiving Day occurred in early October. The date of Thanksgiving, set by President Lincoln, seems to correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which supposedly occurred on November 21, 1620 according to the Gregorian calendar (It was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).

Edward Winslow’s letter dated December 12, 1621 gave the first account of the 1621 Thanksgiving. The complete letter was first published in 1622.

William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation wrote the second description about twenty years after the fact. Bradford’s History was
rediscovered in 1854 after having been taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery prompted a greater American interest in the history of the Pilgrims. It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded.

The primary sources above only list a few items that were on the Thanksgiving “menu”, namely five deer, a large number of turkeys and waterfowl, cod, and bass; plus the harvest, which consisted of wheat, corn, barley, and perhaps a few peas.

To that list can be added a few additional things that are known to have been native to the area and eaten by the Pilgrims; clams, mussels, lobsters, eels, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squash, and beans. Wild fruits and berries, such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and gooseberries, were probably also served.

Pilgrim house-gardens may have included a number of English vegetables and herbs, perhaps things like onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, watercress, and other herbs.

It is unlikely much in the way of supplies brought on the Mayflower survived, such as cheese, oil, butter, salt pork, sugar, spices, lemons, beer, or
bacon. It appears the Pilgrims may have had some chickens with them, so they likely had access to a limited number of eggs. No mention of pigs is
found in any account of the first year. Goats or cattle didn’t arrive until 1623.

The old “Popcorn Myth” would have us believe the Indians introduced the Pilgrims to popcorn at this Thanksgiving: but the Indian corn they grew was does not pop well. The Indians sometimes ground it and mixed it with strawberries for a cake-like desert. Potatoes and sweet potatoes had not yet been introduced to New England.

Other articles in this issue:
A Dream Come True – My Own Greenhouse – By Sue Shaw
The Arthritic Gardener – By Dan Willis