Both Sides of the Bountiful Table

Thanksgiving Day 2021 is the 400th anniversary of the first harvest feast when the English Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts celebrated survival after a harsh introductory year in the New World. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln decreed an annual Thanksgiving holiday on the fourth Thursday of November.

Is what we know about Thanksgiving a day of celebration based on actual history or popular mythology? It depends where you get the story–from the perspective of the victors or the vanquished. In actual history, the Wampanoag Indians, who indeed helped the Pilgrims survive, were not officially invited to the celebratory harvest dinner. But they showed up anyway. And stayed for three days.

In land covering present day southeastern Massachusetts and part of Rhode Island, the Wampanoag Nation once numbered 30,000-100,000 strong. Their lineage can be traced back more than 10,000 years. They lived on the coastline in summer and moved inland during winter. Their geography provided herring and trout from the water, deer, elk, and bear from the forest, and crops planted and harvested on cleared land.

Wampanoag long house

For the previous 100 years, the Wampanoag and other tribes had been trading and fighting with European explorers who passed through the area. Shortly before the Pilgrims came to settle at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Wampanoag population had been decimated by a three-year pandemic of smallpox and yellow fever which they called “The Great Dying”. They lost approximately two thirds of their people. 

Seeing women and children disembark from the Mayflower, the Wampanoag chief decided these people had not come to fight, but to stay. That winter, the Indians watched as half of the English died of cold, starvation, and disease. 

families disembark from the Mayflower

Because of their own reduced numbers after the pandemic, the chief wanted to make allies, not war, with the new settlers. He had another ulterior motive–to get better weapons [guns] to use against their own neighboring tribal enemies. So, the Wampanoag people approached the starving settlers in the spring of 1621 and showed them the best way to plant, fertilize with fish entrails, and harvest crops that would survive–corn, beans and squash.

lessons of survival

That fall, after a successful first harvest and the know-how to see them through succeeding winters, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast of thanks. The Wampanoags were not invited but showed up after hearing gunfire which they presumed to be the start of a war. They were dressed to fight but ended up joining the Pilgrim party as guests. Indian hunters brought in five deer to share. The feasting and revelry went on for three days and nights.

Was it a mistake for the Indians to befriend the Pilgrims? No one can answer for the actions of their ancestors, but today’s surviving members of the Wampanoag nation believe the wrong decision was made. After that first feast of celebration for a plentiful harvest and survival, colonization began in earnest. It was followed by the slow genocide of native people. More waves of Europeans landing on the shores led to more disease and more death of the indigenous cultures. The Wampanoag lands were stripped away, and their traditions shunned with enforced Christianity and boarding school attendance for children.

In 1970, a Wampanoag activist designated a “National Day of Mourning” to counter the national celebration of Thanksgiving Day.

Today, immersion schools have begun for Wampanoag children to learn subjects in their [almost lost] native language. For adults there are language classes. A museum near Plymouth is dedicated to the Wampanoag Indians and their contributions. There is an emphasis on the education and explanation of culture, traditions, and history, including the original Thanksgiving story.

From the conquerors’ gain, there is always loss and disarray left behind. On Thanksgiving Day, as in other years, the Wampanoag gather for a meal and give thanks, not for the Pilgrims arrival in the New World, but to their ancestors and for their survival as a tribe.

For the past 158 years, since Thanksgiving became a holiday, we pause on this day to say “Thank You” for blessings great and small among family and friends. As we gather to share with others in celebration and gratitude, let’s also remember the diverse contributions on both sides of the table, beginning more than 400 years ago. 

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The inspiration for this Thanksgiving story came from an article in the Washington Post by Dana Hedgpeth, “This Tribe helped the Pilgrims survive their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.”


For a different view of Thanksgivings spent in countries overseas where it is not a holiday and the Best Dressing Recipe in the World, see the story French-splaining American Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving Blessing

Today we give thanks:

For food in a world where many walk in hunger,

For friends in a world where many walk alone,

For faith and hope in a world where many walk in fear or sorrow.

Let us give thanks for this food, this home, and all things good,

For the wind and sun above

And most of all for those we love–

Family and friends here and around the world.

–Author unknown


Gratitude

I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessings of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for all this, including the life I have been given.

–Jack Kornfield

French-splaining American Thanksgiving

Before I was reading news digitally, I cut out an article by a humor columnist from a prominent international newspaper. The subject was why Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.

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roast turkey or la dinde rôtie

In 1952, an earlier version of this article was published under the title “Explaining Thanksgiving to the French”. The back-story, prompting the reprint, was a woman in Maryland who bought an old, yellowed newspaper clipping at a garage sale. She paid $10 for it. Someone-in-the-know, at the Library of Congress, told her it was worth $80,000 as a collector’s item. She framed it as art on the wall of her home.

We were living in Germany when I read the printed article. I didn’t speak French then, but found the story quirky enough to save. I understand French better now, so the literal translation reads even sillier.

For history buffs wishing to be enlightened without forking over $80,000, here is one version of why we eat turkey:

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

 Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims [Pèlerins] who fled from l’Angleterre to found a colony in the New World [le Nouveau Monde] where they could shoot Indians [les Peaux-Rouges] and eat turkey [dinde] to their heart’s content.

 They landed at a place called Plymouth [a famous voiture Américaine] in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower [or Fleur de Mai] in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn [maïs]. The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.

 In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges…

 …And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do…1

Living overseas for 30 years, without extended family around, our Thanksgiving holidays have been celebrated sometimes untraditionally. During Taiwan years, there was an annual pig roast in Maddy and Cabby’s backyard, linen covered tables lit in candlelight, adults drinking wine and trading stories while children ran rampant until late at night.

Another year, we shared Thanksgiving with Chinese friends who delighted in the array of traditional-American-food-in-excess more than we did.

The year we became empty nesters, I said to my husband, “No more beige, brown and white food for Thanksgiving. Let’s check into a hotel and eat what we want.” So we did. Spicy Thai is what I remember because we still lived in Asia.

After moving to Europe, with both children permanently in the U.S., we continued to lay low during this holiday-that-was-never-a-holiday in the country where we were living.

A couple of Novembers ago, we were invited to our friends’ Sally and John’s Paris apartment for Thanksgiving. It was an intimate group of eight, but international with one Spanish husband and one Italian boyfriend mixed among the Americans. We brought champagne, red wine, and something green to offset the neutrals of what would undoubtedly be served. Thanksgiving food, in brown and white, is traditional.

But then–I was completely turned upside down by the holiday dinner we had been avoiding for years. At John and Sally’s table there was color, there was taste, there was texture, and there was deliciousness in the one dish I detest the most–dressing.

Everyone in this family is creative. They are artists, film producers, film animators, screenwriters, painters, musicians, and, as it turns out, they are kitchen creative, too.

The dish I now call “John’s Original Holiday Dressing” is superior to the sage-y, soggy, overly bread-y brown mess I have skipped since childhood.

John’s dressing, rich with veggies, full of crunch, a hint of sweetness and tang, was the centerpiece to a remarkable meal in my favorite city [Paris] where Thanksgiving is not celebrated.

Last year, when we were invited again, I asked to learn the secret to the best dressing ever invented to be eaten with roast turkey on Thanksgiving. Like most naturally creative cooks, John uses no recipe. It varies from year to year, ingredients added or subtracted.

For the Benson/Bentley family legacy, as well as our own holiday celebrations, here, thankfully presented, is the most delicious stuffing/dressing recipe you will ever enjoy eating. Second and third helpings-yes! Next day leftovers if there happen to be any-yes!

There is room for your own creativity too. Play with the spice amounts and optional ingredients.

À chacun son goût. To each his own taste. The essence of French-splanation.

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­1.   Story excerpt from International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2005

JOHN’S ORIGINAL HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]

Ingredients:

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  • 1 head celery, chopped
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 6 large cloves garlic [or more], chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 green bell peppers, chopped
  • Button mushrooms, sliced
  • Fresh bread croutons–explained below
  • 2 apples, chopped
  • Greek Kalamata or Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped-optional
  • Tomato confit [or sun dried tomatoes, softened with just enough hot water], chopped–optional
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. good butter, melted–as much as you want
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 4 tsp. sage, rosemary, oregano and tarragon [approximate]
  • Turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, 2/3-1 Cup*
  • Olive oil
  • Several Tbs to 1/4 cup Maple syrup**

*For turkey broth: boil/simmer neck and chopped gizzard in 2-3 cups water, lightly covered, for an hour. You want 2/3 to 1 cup of liquid to add per casserole dish. Okay to use chicken [or veggie broth] as substitute.

**John’s turkey preparation involves brining it beforehand. He likes using the salty drippings and basting liquid to add to the dressing. He uses maple syrup during basting to caramelize the skin and add sweetness. If you don’t use the drippings with syrup in them, then add syrup, as directed, at the end of preparation.

Preparation:

1. In a large pan, sauté red, yellow and green peppers in olive oil on medium to high heat, until they are slightly browned and softened. Add in onions and finally garlic. Add spices–2 tsp. thyme, 4 tsp. each sage, rosemary and oregano during sauté. [Quantities are suggestions because he doesn’t precisely measure.]

It needs to smell herby-and good-as it is cooking!”–John

2. In another pan [flat-bottomed] melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Place sliced mushrooms flat in pan without overlapping. Sprinkle tarragon over it all for a light coating. Brown both sides on medium to high heat. Keep adding butter to the pan as mushrooms soak it up. Don’t skimp on butter. Mushrooms should still be firm on the inside.

3. Make croutons by cutting day old baguette into cubes. Sprinkle olive oil and rosemary over them and toss together. Place in oven on low temperature until browned or crispy.

They should get oiled all around a bit, not soggy of course. Rosemary should be a light sprinkle.”John

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cubed bread before oil/rosemary toss and crisping

4. Mix together all sautéed ingredients in a large bowl while still warm. Add prepared croutons.

5. Add remaining melted butter, at least 1/4 cup or 250 ml [melt more if you need it!]. Divide amounts evenly per casserole dish. Just pour it over and mix in. Use 1/2 bay leaf for each casserole.

6. Stir in broth, a little at a time until everything is mushy and moist, but not soggy.

“Croutons should not crumble into crumbs if smashed. You will probably use 1-2 C. of broth, based on crouton softness.”–John

7. Now add chopped celery, apple, seeded olives, and sundried tomatoes [or tomato confit]. These will add crunch, flavor, and a bit of tang.

8. Smell and taste. Perhaps add more butter or broth and drippings. Can also add sprig of fresh thyme or extra sage.

9. Stir in some maple syrup, a few tablespoons up to 1/4 cup per casserole.

10. Spread all ingredients into ovenproof dishes. Can place some inside turkey as stuffing. Grind black pepper over the top, if you think about it.

11. Bake uncovered 180 C. [350 F.] for about 1 hour. Halfway through, give it a stir to check for softness. If it’s too wet, stir again in 15 minutes to help with evaporation of broth. If still too moist after an hour, turn on broiler for a couple of minutes to brown and crisp the top. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!

Ingredients are already cooked so baking is to evaporate the broth and crisp everything. A good dried out, browned, crispy top is unbeatable. I think it’s the butter.”John Benson

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maybe the secret is in the butter, but it’s really much more than that…

Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.

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Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…

Joyeux Jour de Merci Donnant!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Other stories about Sally Bentley here: Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino or Sex in a Pan and the Tennis/Hewitts [Maddy and Cabby] here: Transcendent Picnics or We All Need the Eggs