A Look Beyond the Turkey: A Brief History of Thankfulness and Harvest

Thanksgiving card from 1900. Public domain. via Wikimedia Commons

As we enter into the hustle and bustle of the approaching holiday season, it’s easy to forget that holidays aren’t made, or bought, or appropriated. On the contrary, they evolve over time. As I’ve seen time and time again, especially when it comes to food, people have a pretty rigid idea of what and what isn’t Thanksgiving fare. And while clearly the first Thanksgiving had quite a different spread, throughout the ages we’ve been celebrating the harvest, culinarily speaking, in a wide variety of ways.

The word harvest itself comes from the Old English word haerfest, which simply means autumn. Around the globe, likely since the dawning of humanity, it’s a time of year that’s been celebrated and marked with various traditions.

In ancient Persia, the harvest was celebrated during Mehrg?n. And it was just the same as you’d expect, falling somewhere between August and October and celebrating the crops brought in by the farmers. Mehrg?n was marked by wild celebration (and the collection of taxes) in ancient Persia. Today, the festival is still marked and considered a time when family gathers to celebrate around a lavishly decorated table. Many families blend eastern and western traditions, as represented in some of the great recipes ground here at Persian Mirror.

Mehregan Table Persian Festival of Autumn – via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile in ancient Greece, there was Thesmophoria. If you know anything about Greek mythology (and my gut tells me quite a few of you do) you won’t be surprised to know that the festival celebrated the goddess Demeter and her famed Hades-traversing daughter, Persephone. What’s interesting about Thesmophoria is that it was a very literal collaboration between the fertility of the earth and, well, fertility of women. After a preliminary feast, the rest of the festival was celebrated primarily by women Athenians, those who were married, in preparation for a fertile year to come. While we don’t know a ton about what actually happened–women didn’t typically have the education to be able to write this sort of thing down–the celebration included the sacrificing of pigs and then interring them. Oh, and they also dug up the stinky ones from the year before. Fetid bacon, anyone?

While the timing is a little different, Thai Pongal is celebrated both in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Territory of Pondicherry, and Sri Lanka. Held on the Winter Solstice, it’s still a celebration that would sound familiar to those of you following along (different seasonal climates, of course, take into consideration the winter placement). Instead of a turkey, the dish that stars as the main attraction is Pongal, which blends rice and lentils and various seasonings (both sweet and savory). Rice is central to the harvest in India, and has long served as the lifeblood of the community. I personally like the description of Bhogi Pandigai, the day before the festival, where:

The people assemble at dawn in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to light a bonfire to discard old used possessions. The house is cleaned, painted and decorated to give a festive look. In villages, the horns of oxen and buffaloes are painted in colors and in most rural parts of Andhra Pradesh people celebrate it in a grand way as most of them would have their harvest ready or even would have made money out of the harvests.

And in the United States (or proto-United States, depending on which part of the timeline you’re going from) I find it particularly fascinating to read some of these first-hand accounts of menus from Food Timeline. It really gives you a look into what could and couldn’t be purchased, as well as some of the personalities behind the menus.

1621 – We get as close as possible to the first American Thanksgiving, or at least what would eventually become that. One of the earlier accounts presents our intrepid settlers going over the veritable bounty from the New World. And while it’s likely there was turkey and pumpkin to eat, the proliferation of seafood is rather staggering. Lobster and gravy, anyone?

Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs. Here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of tree sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, red, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed…

In 1779,  one eye-witness reports there was no beef to be had, as those rations were going the boys in the army. But by 1817, some folks were celebrating on a much more considerable scale, the like to which would put the Romans to shame. This is “Bill of Fare of Thanksgiving Dinner in Connecticut” and is from New York Commerical Advertiser, Mssrs. Lewis & Hall, reprinted in several newspapers, according to Food Timeline:

Geese 50,000, Turkeys 5,500, Chickens 65,000, Ducks 2,000, Beef and Pork, 25,000 lbs, Potatoes 12,000 bu, Turnips 14,000, Beets 4,000, Onions 5,000, Cheese 10,000 lbs, Apple-Sauce 12,000 gls, Cranberry do. 1,000, Desert. Pump. Pies 520,000, Apple Pies 100,000, Other pies & Puddings 52,000, Wine, gls. 150, Brandy, gls, 150, Gin, gls 120, Rum, gls, 1,000, Cider, Bran., & Whiskey, 6000. Which would take 650 hhds, of strained pumpkin; 81 do. molasses; 4060 lbs. ginger; 7000 lbs. allspice, 86,666 lbs. flour; 43,333 lbs of butter or lard; 325 hhds. of milk of 100 gals each; 1000 nutmegs; 50 lbs. cinnamon; 43,5000 dozen eggs–all which would weigh about 504 tons, and would cost about $114,000.

Hobbit-scale gluttony aside, I think my favorite excerpt comes from a very elaborate menu from 1890 (leave it to the Victorians to bring a tear to my eye) that, I think, gets to the heart of what all this Thanksgiving ruckus is about. Whether ancient or modern, American or Sri Lankan, it’s about being grateful, thankful, and embracing our part in the community. From “A Thanksgiving Dinner,” Mrs. S. T. Rorer, Table Talk, November 1890:

This, of all days in the year, is the one to lift you from the burdens of care and trials. It is a day of happiness, because as a rule it brings a family reunions; and to the American, home happiness is as essential to his existence as pure air. This day should also be a day of happiness, as it is a day of thanksgiving, and every creature, no matter what his position chances to be, has, if he looks at it in the proper light, something to be thankful for.