Many people wrongfully assume that today’s Thanksgiving meal is pretty much what the Pilgrims and Native Americans ate back in the day when they gathered to celebrate the autumn harvest.
Those are the kind of people who, likely, believe the meat in the grocery stores comes from animals treated well and unlike those killed by hunters. I won’t dive off deeply into that aspect, but suffice to say that a lot folks have little clue about reality. My arrow or bullet through a deer’s lungs or heart and quick death in the woods compares in no way to a cow, pig or sheep being herded into a pen, then a truck, then hauled to a noisy commercial slaughterhouse, corralled into a chute and then shot in the head or electrified.
Hmmm … I’ll take the deer in the field, thanks.
The original Pilgrims in Plymouth, Mass., back in the day didn’t live the high life. From all accounts it was pretty damned tough to make a go of it in the new world. Thank goodness for their grit, pluck and determination, as well as the aid of the Wampanoag. I’m sure the English settlers were pretty intelligent but without the help and friendship of the Wampanoag, I’d bet a nickel to a donut the Pilgrims might have had a far tougher row to hoe.
Thanks to two surviving documents of their first autumn celebration, written by Edward Winslow and Gov. William Bradford, provide details about the first feast. It appears to be heavily laden with meats including turkey, venison, waterfowl, eels, fish, shellfish, and birds such as swans and passenger pigeons, along with vegetables, nuts and fruit. Sounds like a pretty good spread!
Smithsonian Magazine has an excellent story about the history and meal, and says:
Two primary sources—the only surviving documents that reference the meal—confirm that these staples were part of the harvest celebration shared by the Pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony in 1621. Edward Winslow, an English leader who attended, wrote home to a friend:
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
William Bradford, the governor Winslow mentions, also described the autumn of 1621, adding, “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
Wikipedia’s report about Thanksgiving provides some insight into the event and Gov. Bradford’s thoughts: The Pilgrims held a true thanksgiving celebration in 1623 following a fast, and a refreshing 14-day rain which resulted in a larger harvest. William DeLoss Love calculates that this thanksgiving was made on Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, but before the fall harvest. In Love’s opinion this 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority (Governor Bradford), and not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.
Referring to the 1623 harvest after the nearly catastrophic drought, Bradford wrote: And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had … pretty well … so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.
Those original documents were re-discovered in the 1800s and began circulating again. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the letter from Winslow was distributed in a pamphlet called Mourt’s Relation. Governor Bradford’s account was titled” Of Plimoth Plantation.” These accounts began gaining attention among the young nation and less than 100 years after its birth, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a formal national holiday. It was a way to reconnect with the nation’s forefathers and help, possibly in some small way, to pause for blessings during the Civil War.
Since then, Thanksgiving has become a big business. Turkeys became the official meal centerpiece. Other items such as yams, sweet potatoes, root vegetables, corn, pumpkin and squashes, and similar items we find today as “traditional” may have some rooted connection to that first feast.
Venison Still Popular
Today, though, venison doesn’t seem to register as much as a Thanksgiving offering. I see my friends and fellow hunters with backstraps, venison chili, slow cooked roasts and maybe some summer sausage on the menu. Hurray for them, and pass a fork!
But it seems there are few today who specifically go out to kill a deer — “harvest” in the silly, PC phraseology — for the Thanksgiving table. I don’t know of anyone who makes plans the week or two before to go deer hunting, process it and then present it on the table. Ditto for Christmas. If you do this, I’d love to hear from you.
That doesn’t mean we can’t reconnect with our nation’s first settlers. Whip up a batch of deer chili this weekend. Throw some backstraps on the grill. If you live where you can’t grill until spring or summer, well, toss those backstraps in a cast iron skillet and enjoy.
Ye Olde College Inn Venison Stew
1 (2-pound) venison shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 teaspoons ground black pepper, divided
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic
3 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
¼ cup tomato paste
1½ cups red wine
2 (12-ounce) bottles dark beer
1 tablespoon sugar
3 quarts beef stock, divided
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2½ pounds Yukon gold potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound Vidalia onions, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 pound carrots, sliced ½ inch thick
½ cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
1. Pat venison dry with paper towels. Season with ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper; set aside.
2. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add venison, in batches if necessary, and brown meat on all sides. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and tomato paste; cook, stirring frequently, until tomato paste begins to brown and stick to the bottom of the pan, 2 to 3 minutes. Add red wine, and scrape bottom of pan to release any brown bits. Add beer, sugar, and remaining 1½ teaspoons each salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and cook until liquid is reduced by half, about 15 minutes.
3. Add 2 quarts stock, hot sauce, and Worcestershire; simmer, uncovered, over medium heat for 1 hour. Add remaining 1 quart stock, potatoes, onions, and carrots. Continue simmering until vegetables are tender, about 1 hour. Stir in parsley before serving. Garnish with additional parsley, if desired.
Deep Fried Turkeys
Food and culture writer Robert Moss, who I follow on Twitter, has a similarly fantastic, detailed story on SeriousEats.com about the holiday thing that is the deep fried turkey.
Personally, I’d rather just have the oven-roasted bird or something maybe from a Big Green Egg or Weston smoker. I think the deep-frying deal is more showmanship and “Heh, see what Pap-Pap is doing” more than anything. But I’ve had the deep-fried before and it is tasty. I guess I’m more traditional, though. I like my chicken fried, and summer fairgrounds turkey legs fried.
But that giant hunk of holiday bird, for me, should be in a black or blue pan with little white specks on it, wrapped up in heavy tinfoil with scads of butter, broth, a browned skin with some crunch but not overdone, juicy insides, get your hands away from my wings and the back!, save those giblets for the gravy, pack up for leftovers and gorge some more. Or just hand me a a thigh and couple of the big turkey legs and I’ll be good to go, if they’re not overdone and dry.
The deep fried bird is quite a show, though. If you haven’t seen the warnings on your local television newscasts or an occasional video of someone engulfing a house patio in hot burning oil, take a gander:
OK, that was a bit extreme for those guys’ radio show or whatever, but the crux of the deal is this: hot boiling oil will go positively crazy if you drop in a cooler, bigger turkey and it bubbles over onto the flame. Not good. Not good at all.
Here’s another video with some real clips:
Whew. I’ll just have that turkey leg, please, and we can save the roaring fire for the weekend with a healthy shot of bourbon, some music and good conversation. Sound good to you?