Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Happy Thanksgiving!  Here on the Practical Biology Blog we try to take a biological perspective on things, turning the ordinary into interesting biological education.  And of course, eating is biology, so Thanksgiving is an easy lesson in biology.  What we consider today as a traditional Thanksgiving meal really is no reflection of what the original Thanksgiving meal looked like.  If we do our history, however, we can come pretty close to figuring out what the original 1621 Thanksgiving meal looked like at Plymouth.  History tells us that the original Pilgrims, especially during their first year in the New World, were primarily farmers, gardeners, hunters, and gatherers.  Some of these skills, such as gardening and farming, they would have learned in England.  Most of them they would have had to learn from the Native Americans.  Even skills they learned in the Old World would have had to be relearned in the context of the new conditions in America.  

A little more history.  When the original Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620 they barely survive the winter.  If it were not for them finding a large stash of hidden corn in an abandoned Wampanag Native American village they all might have died.  I must add here, the Pilgrims were a peaceful Christian people, they did not kill the Native Americans and did not steal their food.  In the year to come the Pilgrims and Wampanag people developed a peaceful relationship through which the Pilgrims learned much about how to survive in the New World.  Remember at this point, the New World was nothing like it is today.  In 1620 and 21 the New World was a very hostile place to Europeans.  The winter was far harsher then anything they had encountered, there were no markets for food or established agricultural system, no stores for supplies or tools, no houses, and no buildings.  It was pretty much what we would consider wilderness and everything they needed had to come from the land or the little they carried over from England.  These Pilgrims had no clue how to survive with meager supplies in a wilderness they had never encountered before.

So that first year was extremely difficult.  In-fact, it was so difficult that normally modestly dressed Christian Pilgrims were described as being dressed in rags or nearly naked.  They had virtually nothing that first year.  But after a peaceful relationship with the Wampanag people was developed they began to learn how to hunt, fish, trap, grow food, and gather food from the forest plants.  During that first year, the Pilgrims learned to live on the land so well that by fall they had an abundance of food.  During that first year they went from having next to nothing and no real idea of how to survive to learning how to survive and having an abundance of food.  Anything could have easily wiped the entire Pilgrim group out during that first year but it didn’t, and they did as every good Christian should, they thanked God.  A big part of this thankfulness took place with a three day celebration full of food, games, and just having a thankful good time among themselves and the Native Americans they befriended.  This celebration became known later as the first Thanksgiving.

So the first Thanksgiving meal would have been composed of food items grown and gathered by hand, not bought from a store.  The meal also would have been heavily Native American influenced being that is who taught them how to gather their food.  Some of you may be wondering at this point, what does all this have to do with biology?  Much in every way.  Of course gardening is biology as well as living off the land.  All of this had its context in the Eastern Deciduous Forest ecosystem of New England.  So all of the plants and animals they gathered would have only come from the local environment.  We do know the Wapanag people contributed five deer to the first Thanksgiving.  The Pilgrims also hunted a huge number of what they called fowl.  Fowl likely was duck, goose, turkey, and other birds.  Other than that we really don’t know exactly what was on that first menu.  We can take clues from the local environment of what probably was on that menu through.  It is also very likely that they ate eel, lobster, mussels, and fish.  As for plant products there were also probably nuts such as acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, and chestnuts.  Fruits and berries gathered from the forest would have been out of season during the late fall when the celebration took place.  There would have also been an abundance of garden produce including squash, pumpkin, corn, leeks, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, and turnips.  Some of these plants were given to them by the Native Americans while others would have been brought over as seed from Europe.  Also interesting is that the corn would not have been sweet corn, it would have been ground up and served as cornbread, mush or pudding.  There was also very little or more likely no sugar.  So no sweet desserts except for what could have been sweetened with molasses.  No pies, no cranberry sauce, and no sweet potatoes with marsh mellows on top.  Maybe a little wine and beer but most likely only water (The Pilgrims didn’t have a problem with moderate consumption of alcohol).  

If you think about it, this would be quite an interesting meal.  I mean, who wouldn’t want lobster and eel for lunch three days in a row! Have a happy Thanksgiving!

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