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W&L Anthropology Students Explore Thanksgiving Myths

One week before Americans sit down for their Thanksgiving dinner, anthropology and history students at Washington and Lee University tasted recipes from the original Thanksgiving dinner—well, except for the eels and hard cider.

The class had learned from Alison Bell, associate professor of archaeology at W&L, about how the myths of the first Thanksgiving evolved and how the 1621 celebration involved neither pumpkin pie nor stuffing nor perhaps even turkey. So this was their opportunity to literally taste what the Pilgrims ate, or at least the best approximation that J. Young, executive chef at W&L, could create.

Young made the dishes as historically accurate as possible. The final menu consisted of duck, game hen, venison, mussels, beans, peas, and parsnips.

“I chose the items I knew I could get easily,” said Young. “Also, I thought some people might cringe at the thought of eating eels or oysters, whereas it’s much easier to switch from turkey to duck. The meal presented no challenge from a culinary standpoint, because in those days they simply roasted or boiled their food. So I prepared it in a traditional manner, exactly as the Pilgrims would have done.”

When Bell first approached Young to collaborate on re-creating the original Thanksgiving dinner, Young was surprised and assumed that the menu would be more like today’s meal. “As we began talking, I became more interested as she told me why she wanted to do this and enlightened me on the myths surrounding the Pilgrims and that first celebration,” he said.

“I think it’s terrific that W&L’s executive chef was so willing and able to participate in this educational venture,” said Bell.

Bell designed the class, The Anthropology of American History, to use alternative and creative ways of hands-on learning about the past. Her goal was for students to gain a different perspective on history, and she saw Thanksgiving as the perfect opportunity to question what they thought they knew, to see the primary documents and then to taste the recipes.

Studying the records and letters from the time of the original Thanksgiving, the students learned that there was little correlation between what Americans ate in the 20th and 21st centuries and what the Plymouth settlers ate in 1621 with the local Wampanoag Indians.

For example, Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s letter about the Thanksgiving celebration mentions Governor William Bradford’s sending men “fowling,” which could have meant turkey, but was more likely to have been duck or goose because of their migration patterns and the Pilgrims’ location along the coast. “In the late 19th century, wild duck and geese were harder to come by than in the early 17th century, so domesticated turkey became the standard fare,” Bell explained. Other foods common in the Plymouth colony included eels, lobsters and oysters, as well as beer and cider.

According to Bell, the Victorians in the late 19th century romanticized the original Thanksgiving and created the myths surrounding it, even inventing decorative items for the Pilgrims’ headgear. “There’s no evidence in the 25 or 30 years of copious research that they had buckles on their hats, although some probably did have buckles on their shoes,” said Bell.

Another aspect of the myth was the Pilgrims’ supposedly drab, brown and white clothing; in truth, they often wore bright colors. Bell explained that the “grim pills,” as some in the 20th century called them, were pious, but they were not buttoned up, and a lot of their rule breaking and gaiety hasn’t made their way into our consciousness.

The stereotypes are persistent, including the log cabins and the tablecloth and chairs laid out for the feast. “Log cabins came much later,” said Bell. “Plymouth colonists would have lived in wooden houses made with vertical posts and wattle and daub rather than horizontal logs. They had few chairs, meaning that most people stood or sat on logs, chests or other make-shift seats. Also, because forks had not come into general use, they used spoons, knives and probably hands at the meal.

Another persistent image in popular pictures of the first Thanksgiving is that of just a few token Native Americans at the feast, whereas they outnumbered the Pilgrims by a ratio of approximately two to one.