Thanksgiving an Beer

turkey-and-pint-croppedMy wife goes on record as saying that Thanksgiving is her favorite US Holiday. I’m inclined to agree. Food, drink and feasting. She’s Canadian and since Canadian Thanksgiving falls earlier in the year, this will be our second such feast. Let’s do a little time travel and take a look at a little bit of the history behind the National Holiday.

The First Thanksgiving

Some of you have heard the old tale of why the Mayflower landed where it did. For you not familiar with that little tid-bit, the settlers allegedly picked Plymouth Rock because they were running short of beer. A highly romanticized account.

Beer over Water?  

Water could get tainted on the journey over the pond. All those pathogens and bacterial swimming about in the drinking water. Beer became a staple in Europe was because of the disease ridden water.

During the brewing process, water is heated up and the wort gets boiled, so a safer alternative to water. 

There’s a reason beer is also called “liquid bread.” It is full of nutrients, protein, Vitamin B, fiber and more. You can see my blog posting about the health benefits (Disclaimer: Feds frown upon claiming health benefits).

Contrary to what you might think, alcohol didn’t have a lot to do with preventing their brew from turning. It isn’t anti-microbial, but hops and polyphenols are.

I’m thinking the Pilgrims probably didn’t have “small beers” (low alcohol) in stock unless they were brewing it on board. Small beers were usually drunk soon after fermentation or after it completed fermenting. So my guess is some sort of dark, hoppy, high alcohol ale. This is pre-style, but I would venture to guess it was similar to what we know as a Porter today.

Did the settler’s really land because they were out of beer?

I’ve heard a few different accounts. Here are some points, some based on fact and some speculation:

Had they run off course and the winds weren’t in their favor then maybe. Perhaps they had one too many Frat Parties below deck.

How would you feel if you were dumped off on an alien piece of land in the dead of Winter? Without supplies, you couldn’t grow anything, they’d be dead. I guess they could have eaten a lot of Turkey or whatever else was running around in the woods.

The Pilgrims just ran out of time. It took time to prepare and get ready before the coming of winter. England is 3,270 miles from Plymouth Rock and 3,670 miles away from Jamestown. If they prepared for the 400 mile difference, they probably had enough unless they were super stingy. I’m leaning towards no, they did not run out of beer.

What do you think they made their beer out of? 

They had to work with what they had. Barley probably failed again and again. The loss of a crop like that would have been devastating not to mention the cost of receiving shipments from Europe. 

What they had was corn, pumpkins and maybe sugar processed from sugar beets. As far as hops go, I’m not sure how early they cultivated it and if they actually grew it early on, so I’m guessing none.

Some of the big breweries brew with a lot of adjuncts like rice and corn. I don’t particularly care for such beers.

Pilgrims and the Natives

I’m not dissing a great feasting holiday, but this little saga of the guys in tall hats isn’t as peaceful as we’d like to paint it. Sure, if it weren’t for the Natives, the Pilgrims would have died off pretty quickly. There was probably trade but there was probably a lot of pillaging as well, especially during the winter months.

The two parties weren’t exactly best friends. Religious persecution was a big reason why people moved across the ocean. The Europeans saw themselves as above other people, often labeling the indigenous people as savages. There was a lot of bloodshed to be had resulting in mass casualties on both sides. It didn’t help that the Europeans probably brought over a bunch of diseases which in turn killed a lot of natives.

There may have been a little feast and perhaps a few natives were present.

What do you think they ate?

Again, just like ingredients for beer, they had to work with what they had. None of this sweet potato with marshmallows, no potatoes, cranberry sauce (at least not the same we are used to) or pumpkin pie. As far as turkey goes? It wasn’t the only meat served.

Cooking methods were a lot different back then. Stewing and roasting were the common practice seeing as they didn’t have access to ovens.

Let’s start with the veggies.

Corn: Forget about the sweet corn smothered in butter. The settlers didn’t have access to it. What they had was this hard dried corn more suitable for grinding into a meal that served on the cob. 

Potatoes: Sorry, not really cultivated in their neck of the woods at the time. So sorry, no fluffy mashed potatoes with gravy drizzled over it.

Sweet Potatoes and Yams: They weren’t very common in the region at the time.

Pumpkin and Squash: These can grow like weeds. They were probably accessible. Preparing them was probably just boiling the hell out of them. They may have had some sort of tart made from the boiled mush with a few spices thrown in there.

Nuts: Most likely. Walnuts, chestnuts and beechnuts were abundant.

Fruit: There were some, dried. Some of them were stewed and probably made some sort of compote. Cranberries, loganberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, and plums were dried and most likely available. Cranberry sauce? Wild cranberries grew, but there was no sugar to make the sauce we know today. I found a reference to a “sauce” made with them, but it also contained dried venison and melted fatty goodness.

How about the meat? Turkey was only one among several meats served.

Seafood: Cod, bass and eel were readily available. There was probably lobster, oysters and clams put on the table too.

Turkey: What would Thanksgiving be without turkey, the same bird Ben Franklin wanted to make our national bird? The turkey may have been spit roasted, but it was probably stewed as well, with onions, dried fruit and whatever herbs or spices they had on hand. Probably no stuffing.

Other Fowl: Duck, goose and swan were available. Maybe there were some pigeons or pheasants roaming about. 

Venison: You can probably count on that one. If was a chief source of animal protein.

Other notes on Thanksgiving

You really think this was a one day feast on the last Thursday of November? Wrong on two accounts.

First, the feast probably lasted longer than the few hours we spend munching on turkey and all its trimmings before the football game. The only written account of that historic feast was of a three day harvest festival.

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the US Government in 1789. 

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

John Adams and James Madison also established days of Thanksgiving. But still, no official day.

The holiday we know as Thanksgiving wasn’t officially put on the calendar until 1827 when Abraham Lincoln established it nationally. A noted editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale (who is also known for authoring the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) launched a campaign, petitioning governors, senators, presidents and various other politicians petitioning the establishment of Thanksgiving be a national holiday. It took Miss Hale 36 years to be heard.

In 1863 at the height of the American Civil War, or as my friends down south say, The War of Northern Aggression, Old Honest Abe, wrote a proclamation urging Americans to,

“Commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” 

Clearly his way of healing the wounds the war. So, Lincoln went a head and scheduled Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November. It was celebrated that way until 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up by a week to try and get retail sales up during the Great Depression. In 1941, Roosevelt reluctantly changed it back to the final Thursday.

The tradition of the President of the United States pardoning a turkey didn’t come around until the late 19th or 20th Century. The turkeys were originally sent off to a petting zoo in Virginia. Then the turkeys get to retire to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch. Disney recently retired that tradition and now the pardoned birds get to spend Christmas at Mount Vernon until moving on to their permanent home at Morven Park’s Turkey Hill in Leesburg, VA.

Well, that’s it for me. Time to head home and start prepping for Thursday’s feast. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.