WGSS wishes you a very happy Thanksgiving!
Outdoors: a mostly authentic Thanksgiving feast is planned by a columnist – The Worcester Telegram
Back in 1621, the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving in North America lasted for three consecutive days, most likely somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11. The exact dates are uncertain. But that otherwise-memorable feast 391 years ago certainly wasn’t the first Thanksgiving here.
Local native tribes, of course, had long before celebrated the bounty of the autumn harvest, as do most hunter-gatherer cultures, vulnerable to capricious natural cycles.
They would have little to be thankful for in subsequent years as more displacing Europeans followed the Pilgrims.
Those Pilgrim farmers from Europe, rather inept at survival in wild New England, had difficulty settling on an infertile, forested sand plain. Many died in the process. From the beginning, they needed to scrounge and exploit a weakened population of resident Native Americans.
Journals reveal they resorted early to stealing the natives’ seed corn stashes even before meeting them. Thankfully for the Pilgrims, our region’s Indians, severely weakened by the 1617 typhus epidemic introduced by French explorers, were not only nonbelligerent, but critically helpful, generous and initially much more tolerant and forgiving than the Pilgrims would have been, had Indians tried to settle their land and steal their seed.
Many of the decimated natives’ untended fields were conveniently open for the lucky Pilgrims to plow. The Indians’ hospitality would prove a strategic blunder, accelerating their rapid elimination.
The epic feast in Plymouth involved just 53 Pilgrims and nearly twice as many Wampanoag tribesmen. Accompanied by their leaders, Puritan Gov. Bradford and Chief Massasoit, everyone behaved. The lack of alcohol no doubt contributed to the civility.
Hunters provided all the main courses. Bradford had sent his shooters out fowling for several days earlier. Passenger pigeons, now extinct, were abundant then, as were fishy-tasting sea ducks and herons. Canada geese, mallards, black ducks, grouse and wild turkeys were shot, too, but the latter weren’t the centerpiece of the table as most believe.
The Pilgrim’s feast was lacking until the Wampanoags arrived carrying five deer. Venison and assorted wild fowl — not turkey — were the main entrées of the first Thanksgiving. Considering that back in England all deer belonged to the king, feasting on venison was a novel privilege.
Large fowl like turkeys were typically boiled before roasting, rendering them more tender and creating a much-relished broth. Eels, clams, mussels, oysters, cod, flounder and lobsters were common, the latter surprisingly regarded as unappetizing “bugs.” Having depleted sugar supplies and possessing no oven, they baked no desserts. Breads were made from corn, not wheat. Stuffing consisted of onions, chestnuts and herbs.
The seriously religious Pilgrims didn’t condone wild partying, frivolity or excessive drinking of either beer, the most popular beverage of the time, or aqua vitae, a strong liquor made from distilling wine or beer. They’d have been surprised by our observance of football as part of the celebration. They certainly would have prayed.
We give the Pilgrims credit for establishing our most popular annual tradition, but they only initiated it. Surprisingly, they didn’t continue celebrating Thanksgiving in subsequent years. The permanent establishment of the holiday resulted from later historical events.
Deer hunting back then was exceptional, considering the natives’ excellent success with primitive means. Native Americans clearly had learned to manage the land, periodically burning areas to promote nourishing new growth, which would have attracted and sustained many more deer than shaded, mature forests with little undergrowth.
Indians didn’t need Scentlock clothing, scentless soaps, doe-in estrus urine lures, compound bows, laser range-finders, steel broadheads or any of the dozens of other products hunters depend on today. Nor did they use the 5-foot, 6-inch heavy matchlock muskets of the Pilgrims. They had to be skilled and resourceful, playing the wind, trapping and ambushing. Their lives depended on their hunting success, so kills were always reason to celebrate. There were no anti-hunting or animal-rights factions back then.
My family will try to celebrate Thanksgiving semi-authentically with venison, wild turkey, oysters, quahogs, smoked bluefish and striper, boletus and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, and cranberries — all foods we hunted, fished for, or gathered ourselves in the wilds of Massachusetts.
Unlike the Wampanoags who roasted their venison to charred black over a wood fire, we’ll be grilling kebabs of tenderloin and backstrap wrapped in maple-flavored bacon, very careful to cook them medium rare. And we’ll incorrectly enjoy homemade pecan and apple pies for dessert.
I’m thankful my son and I could hunt together and kill deer for our family and friends, and that we still have wild lands to hunt, fish and gather. These opportunities of freedom don’t exist in many other parts of the world.
Thanksgiving is a perfect time for successful hunters to share our bounty, and to thank the many people responsible for the continuance of our tradition — Mass. Fish and Wildlife, sportsmen’s clubs, gun rights supporters, the Nature Conservancy, Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Committees, our Land Trusts, all the private landowners who share their land with us, and especially our beloved mates who understand and encourage our wild passions.