Fairy Godmother of Thanksgiving


It is the time of year to come together with family and friends to share a meal and be thankful for what we have. Yet, the meal we envision is one that comes from the mid-1800s, not the first Thanksgiving gathering in 1621.  Discussion with students in my high school Food Studies classes this week revealed how little they, and many others know about the first meal shared between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, or the dream of Sarah Josepha Hale.  The first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts lasted three days without the turkey as the centerpiece of the table.  According to the Smithsonian.com, the meal featured wild turkey, goose, swan, passenger pigeons, duck, and the main meat was venison.  Notable side dishes accompanied the meal including corn porridge, small pumpkins, eel, lobster, shellfish, and root vegetables.  But wait…this means there was no sage bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie!

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, 1943
Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, 1943.

The imagery of the Thanksgiving celebration is often born out of examples such as Norman Rockwell’s oil painting Freedom From Want that was featured in The Saturday Evening Post.  The picture was published on March 6, 1943, and offers us a glimpse into this multi-generational family.  The large roasted turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, with condiments of cranberry gelee, celery, and a large fruit bowl.  The table is set with a white linen cloth, china, silverware, glasses of water and a covered tureen with decorative trim.  

Sarah Josepha Hale
 Hulton Archive—Getty Images

Sarah Josepha Hale, born in New Hampshire in 1788, was an American author and the editor of Godey’s Lady Book.  From 1837 to 1863, Sarah petitioned many American Presidents and Governors to declare a national day of thankfulness during the month of November.  Growing up in New England, Sarah understood the importance of the fall season representing the harvest of our year’s labor and why the first Thanksgiving meal of the Pilgrims and Native Indians gave cause to celebrate and reflect on those things we are thankful for throughout the year.  The editorials show her relentless pursuit of a national Thanksgiving day as a way to unite the country:

THANKSGIVING DAY. — The observance of this hallowed day is another strong link in the chain that binds the states in brotherhood. We are more than glad, we are grateful that the suggestion, emanating from our “Lady‟s Book,” has been so kindly received. We suggested, early last year, that the Day of Thanksgiving should be observed on the last Thursday in November, throughout the nation. Of course, the appointment of the day rests with the governors of each state; and hitherto, though the day of the week was always Thursday, that of the months had been varied.  But the last Thursday of last November was kept as Thanksgiving Day in twenty-four of the twenty-nine states — all that kept such a feast at all. May the last Thursday of the next November witness this glad and glorious festival, this “feast of the ingathering of harvest,” extended over our whole land, from the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Plymouth Rock to the Sunset Sea.  

Turkey being deep fried.  

The meal we eat today has evolved from the writing of Sarah Josepha Hale, who recommended many recipes and meal ideas during her time working for Godey’s Lady Book.  So whether you are serving deep-fried turkey, Turducken, ham, or venison, you are still honoring the traditions of the day.  The day is about thankfulness, especially being thankful for whatever food you may have to share with loved ones.  Remember to also thank Sara Hale for making her dream of a national Thanksgiving a reality and giving us this wonderful food-centric holiday.  





©Susan Brassard, chef411@wordpress.com, November 21, 2018