American Plate - Bite #44: The Rise of Thanksgiving

Monday, November 27, 2017
Are American schoolchildren still sold the myth of Thanksgiving? Are they still being taught that colonists took a break from ransacking land from and committing violence against the Native American population to sit down for a jolly meal together in 1621? I feel like the truth has caught on in the popular consciousness, and that Thanksgiving is celebrated in a far more modern context these days, which is all to the good.

Of course, a lot of time passed between the 1600s and now, so how did Thanksgiving really catch on? Celebrating it in late November is nothing new; having a post-harvest feast made all kinds of sense in our early agrarian society. However, the day of said feast was up to each individual governor. Such was life until the lead-up to the Civil War, when a ladies' magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale began to campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, in part to help heal how divided and factional the nation had become. Good thing that doesn't happen anymore!

Hale got her wish in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln cemented Thanksgiving into the American calendar. The North took to it immediately. It was a celebration not only of bounty, but of a rapidly expanding economy. Though the war was far from decided, they were feeling pretty good about themselves, and Thanksgiving helped commemorate that. The South turned their nose up at Thanksgiving, associating it with Northern politics. They weren't entirely wrong; there was a huge push in the North to bring Thanksgiving to all the Union fighters, and masses of food were sent by civilians to keep the soldiers' spirits up.

After the war, Thanksgiving continued its spread across all of the states, until it became the bedrock of autumnal American holidays. History is still being made with Thanksgiving, as the plight of Native American populations has become part of the national discussion, and the feast has become more about recognizing our own personal gratitude than anything having to do with patriotic avowals. It's even spreading beyond the family circle, as "Friendsgivings" have continued to gain popularity.

My own Thanksgivings vary wildly. Sometimes, it's a large family gathering. Sometimes, it's a small dinner for two. Sometimes, it's dinner out at a restaurant serving a Thanksgiving meal. It's definitely one of my favorite meals of the year, and not just because it's laden with symbolism and history. It's simply got some of the best culinary components available. Roast turkey? Delicious! Stuffing? Delicious! Corn casserole? Delicious! Green beans? Delicious! Pumpkin pie? Delicious! Cranberries? Those...exist, too!

This year, there was an incredibly wide range of eating, as you can tell from the pictures. First, there was a traditional-type meal at my mom's house. Turkey, stuffing, etc. I made the pecan pie pictured, and did so without using the usual drum of corn syrup. This one used large quantities of eggs as a binder, and as a result, was a much nuttier pie that didn't reek of sweetness. I liked it! You can see that we also have a strange little family tradition in that we have fried oysters on Thanksgiving. I've never heard of anyone else doing that, but I'm certainly not complaining.

The weekend after the main holiday brought two Friendsgivings. The first one featured a fascinating concoction called a meatcake, which you can see above. A cake made of meat that's "frosted" with mashed potatoes? Yes, please! The second Friendsgiving eschewed American tradition by skewing Mexican, including olive-topped enchiladas, carnitas, and my sinful sopapilla cheesecake bars. The holiday obviously has a lot of significance, and not just for family gatherings. It's a time to express gratitude for all that I have, of course, but it's also the time of year to celebrate friendships and to experiment with fun recipes, both of which I cherish.