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How Thanksgiving Got Its Turkey

The history of Thanksgiving is much deeper than you think. Plus, a Thanksgiving jam recipe. Thanksgiving is a myth, or at...

The history of Thanksgiving is much deeper than you think. Plus, a Thanksgiving jam recipe.

Thanksgiving is a myth, or at least it is as taught to school children. I don't mean to be a spoil-sport. Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, in part because it sanctifies gluttony. More meaningfully, it also is the rare holiday that is framed by beliefs I hold dear: about nature's abundance, the vitality of kinship across the generations, and the universal brotherhood of the table.But the fond story about Pilgrims in brass-buckle shoes being saved from starvation in 1621 by kindly buckskin-clad Indians bearing gifts of wild game and corn is a legend, according to a fascinating article by food historian Andrew F. Smith that appeared in the fall, 2003, issue of the academic journal Gastronomica. The Thanksgiving meal is as laden with symbolism as sustenance; it's just that the true meaning isn't exactly what we learned in grade school.After the grave Puritans arrived on the Mayflower and established Plimoth Plantation in 1620, they promptly began to issue all sorts of thanksgiving proclamations. These "celebrations" might be declared in observance of "a military victory, a good harvest, or a providential rainfall," says Smith, but they were solemn days of prayer, not sumptuous meals shared with their First Nation brothers.It's true that there does exist a letter dated December, 1621, that mentions a big feast of wild fowl eaten with Native American king Massasoit and his men, and the missive has since been enshrined as evidence of the original thanksgiving feast. But the purpose of this letter makes it suspect: It was sent to England to attract more settlers to Plymouth Plantation. Rather than the founding document of America's a multicultural past, it's something of a hyped-up real-estate advertisement.

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