I think most of us are only possessed of a few sodden old fact-oids about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims –– a date, a place, funny hats, Native American guests, a dinner –– blah blah blah.
Thing is, there’s more to the story –– I thought I’d mix it up a little and set the historical table with a few new dishes.
The Pilgrims didn't come to America in 1620 just to have Thanksgiving dinner.
Daniel Mytens 1621 portrait of James I
James I was the King of England in 1620 and had been since 1603. James was a thoughtful, well-educated man but he had just stumbled into the 30 Years War that year. He wrote a book arguing there was a theological basis for monarchy but was fascinated with witches, attended torture sessions and even wrote a book about the dark side (Shakespeare used James’ book, Daemonologie, as background for Macbeth). Later James softened on the subject, perhaps discovering that some accusations were untrue and people had been tortured and died unjustly, a heavy burden for a pious man.
First King James Bible
It was this James who commissioned the King James Bible translation that was completed in 1611 –– it remained the standard for hundreds of years. Using scholars to translate in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin and then poets to smooth out the text (it's a lovely thing to read if you haven't). However, the Church of England under James I was rather strict and punished those who wished to worship outside the state church (with hefty fines or imprisonment). This did not sit well with the pilgrims who had their own interpretation of worship and religion. Many of the group that were to come to America first traveled to the continent to be free to worship as they wished.
The group spent time in Leyden, Holland where they found the religious freedom that had eluded them at home. Although they were welcomed in Leyden, they felt alienated by the foreign language and dreamed of a home of their own –– a NEW England.
The Leyden Pilgrims (as they were later called) scraped together money for the journey and returned to England where they picked up more like-minded souls to join them. Their timing may have been a little off.
On the plus side, they missed the incredibly cold winter of 1620 in England. The Thames froze over and there were 13 continuous days of snow in Scotland. Thousands of animals died –– the pilgrims avoided that. Still, what possessed them to ship out knowing they were going to arrive in the New World in November?
Of the 2 ships that were chartered, the Speedwell was declared unfit and some of its passengers were allowed to go onto the Mayflower (the rest were left behind). They ran low on funds and had to sell off provisions to go forward including precious butter. Along with grains, dried fruit, seeds and smoked meats, they might have brought live pigs, goats and chickens with them. They did bring 2 dogs, one a female mastiff, the other a springer spaniel.
The Mayflower left port on Sept 6 and arrived in the New World on Nov 21 after a trying journey that lost many and sickened most. Those that did arrive were in sad shape. Only 57 of the original 102 passengers survived the first winter (it took them a month to build a shelter in the middle of winter). At times there were only a handful of healthy people to tend to the sick in a makeshift hospital. It seems that the voyage was the main reason for the massive death toll amongst the pilgrims, that and the dearth of supplies. It was not, I discovered, completely the fault of the New England winter.
I always assumed it was a dreadful New England winter in 1620 but found that was not the case from a Wikipedia entry on the subject, although pretty hard at first, it was a mild winter:
“Nearly all historians describe the winter of 1620-21 as mild, though the season began with harsh weather early in December just at the time the Pilgrims were exploring the unknown land. Bradford described the conditions of December 7th and 8th: “for the ground was now all covered with snow and hard frozen. Snow depth was half a foot. Another exploration party set out the 16th in very cold and hard weather to reach the southern shore of Cape Cod Bay. The 17th was windy, the weather was very cold and it froze hard as the spray of the sea lighting on their coats, they were as if they had been glazed. (2) The afternoon of the 18th brought snow and rain. (These early winter conditions eventually gave way to milder weather when the winds shifted from the northeast to a more southerly flow.) The expedition then moved to the western shore of the Bay where one of the mariners remembered visiting a large harbor on a previous voyage. Samuel de Champlain had visited this harbor in 1605 and published a navigation chart of the area in 1612. The Pilgrims were not the earliest to visit Plymouth harbor with their landing on that stormy night of December 18th-19th, 1620.
“The winter of 1620-21 was "a calm winter, such as was never seen here since," wrote Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Edward Winslow, one of the original Pilgrims, also wrote about the "remarkable mildness" of that first winter in Good Newes from New England, published in 1624. There was testimony by others to a mild end of December, a moderate January, a brief cold spell with sleet and some snow in early February, followed by definitely mild conditions and an early spring”
Strangely, the first American Thanksgiving was actually in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610 but the Thanksgiving that has always been recognized as the first was given by the settlers at Plymouth Colony in 1621 and celebrated with Native Americans. They ate “venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. William Bradford noted that, "besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”
This feast lasted three days, and was attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans.
The First Thanksgiving" by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe
Edward Winslow, in Mourt's Relation (written 1620-21) wrote of the day:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
It is interesting to think about what the pilgrims did not have to work with. When you think about it, most English desserts were out of the question because things that we take for granted were not available in the new country.
As American as apple pie is really not very, well, American. Apples started as Malus sieversii in southern Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang, China and spread all over the Middle East and Europe as Malus domestica. Surprisingly, the new country of America had no apples –– only crab apples were found on the continent (a close relative to our apple, also available in England but used with much sweetening to make jelly –– the pilgrims probably didn't have much sugar).
Apples came to America on the Mayflower and were planted immediately at the new colony (using seeds saved from the apples eaten on the journey and perhaps grafted trees). European apples did not thrive at the beginning. First, the grafted trees didn’t do well because they were unsuited to the harsh climate, and second, the trees that did produce had a very poor yield since there were no honeybees –– native bees did not pollinate with the same fervor as their European cousins, they also did not produce much honey. Honeybees were imported to the American colonies in 1622. Blackstone planted apples on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1623. It is entirely possible that English dried apples made the first thanksgiving but an American crop would be a few years in the making.
Gerad ter Borch De Koestal 1650 (note the much smaller udder than we see today)
They had no milk that first year, except as cheese and probably rancid butter (that the Indians for some reason loved). Cows didn’t arrive in the New World until 1624 on the good ship Charity. The precious cargo on the supply ship included 3 cows and a bull. In The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization), Will Durant said that a 13th century cow yielded only a pound of butter a week as the cow only gave about 3 pounds of milk per day (1 ½ quarts –– today’s cows do 6-7 gallons!). Rense said it takes 21.2 pounds of milk to make a pound of butter. The butter that was brought on the Mayflower was precious cargo indeed. Cream would have been a huge extravagance for many years.
The dish I thought I would share for Thanksgiving would not have been possible for the first Thanksgiving, but very possible for the November Thanksgiving declared by George Washington in 1789 (there had been an earlier Dec 18th Thanksgiving declared by the Continental Congress in 1777). It is an apple trifle. The recipe comes from 1806, but Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 classic, The Experienced English Housekeeper, had a similar trifle recipe.
Eliza Rundell’s 1806, The New System of Domestic Cookery recipe had a macaroon base that intrigued me and in it I saw the basis for the famous Eton Mess. The original skipped the cookie base for the apple version of the trifle but I loved the idea of the madeira or sherry soaked, orange-flavored almond macaroons at the bottom (I’ve read raisin wine tastes a bit like those fortified wines). I thought it would be splendid with the apples and perfect for the holidays. I did use 3 egg yolks for the custard –– one wouldn’t have held it together very well. It is still fairly creamy. Also, the original topping would be more like an everlasting syllabub (you can read more about it from Ivan Day's great article HERE), that would be made with 4 parts cream to 1 part alcohol. It would be left overnight and scooped up to top the dessert (leaving a bit of alcohol at the bottom for a chef's treat).
The trifle is a triumph. An elegant veil of madeira with subtle notes of lemon and orange. It's rich as could be but doesn't feel that way because the apples provide a fresh note. This will become a holiday favorite.
1/3 c New York Malmsey Madeira from Rare Wine Company or sherry (use a sweeter variety)
madeira whipped topping*****
Put the macaroons at the bottom of the dish. Pour the madeira over it. Put the apples on top of the macaroons and then pour the custard on top. Pipe or spoon the whipped topping on top and sprinkle with violets. The original recipe says that it is better the next day-- do not put the violets on before you are ready to serve, they melt.
2 oz slivered blanched almonds, ground to meal
2 egg whites, beaten stiffly
1/2 lb sugar
2 drops Aftelier Petitgrain Essence or 2 t orange flower water
Preheat the oven to 375º
Blend the almond meal with the sugar. Add the orange to the egg whites and blend with the almond meal.
Put parchment paper on 2 baking sheets. I got 22 macaroons out of the batter (lots left over for snacking). Put on the baking sheet and let sit for 15 minutes.
Put in the oven and turn the temperature down to 325º. Cook for about 15-20 minutes. The are ready when they lift off the paper without sticking.
2 pounds apples (peeled, cored and chopped)
4 T sugar
zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 c water
1 drop Aftelier Cognac Essence
Cook the apples over a medium low heat, covered until softened and easily mashed. I like it with texture but you can make it into a smooth puree if you like. Add the drop of cognac essence and cool.
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
3 egg yolks
3 T sugar
Heat the milk and cream. Beat the yolks with the sugar and salt in a large bowl and add the hot milk.
Return the mixture to the pan (I always like to wait a few minutes so the mixture cools a bit) and use a spatula to continually stir the mixture over medium heat till it reaches about 180º and thickens. It will never get terribly thick. Be careful not to let it stick or get too hot. Remove from the heat, strain and chill.
1 c cream
2 egg whites
pinch cream of tartar
1-3 T New York Malmsey Madeira from Rare Wine Company
zest of 1/2 a lemon
3 T sugar
Whip the cream till stiff. Add the sugar, lemon peel and madeira. Whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar till stiff and add to the cream mixture.
* if you would like to be authentic, to 1 c cream add 1/4 c madeira. Get the egg whites started then add to the cream and sherry and whip like the devil and let sit over night. The alcohol will pool at the bottom and the fluff can be removed and put on top of the dessert. You can see the result HERE.