The American Holiday of Thanksgiving

This is the first post coming at my hordes of faithful yet nonexistant readers from the brand-new blogging system.

Personally, I'm quite pleased with the new, clean, easily navigable format of the entire TPIEF web site after the changeover. Computer dunce that I am, however, it took a few weeks and a lot of help to actually upload a first post--even though a representative from the tech company that supplied the system came to our office and gave us all a two-hour lesson explaining exactly how to do things. Anyway, here we are.

The obvious drawback is that the blog is even less reader-friendly than it was before. At least before there was a misleadingly-labeled 'comment' button (which in fact led to a form that would send a message to my email inbox), but now there's not even that. So now that it's a blog in name only, I should properly compose articles that would draw fans. The problem is that without any direct way to tell me what they would like to read about, such hypothetical fans are not forthcoming. Just about anything about which I have an opinion is bound to be controversial, so I'm going to attempt to expound on those cultural and historical topics that I believe are least likely to tempt me to offend the sensitive.

Appropriately for November, I chose Thanksgiving for this month's expunsion. (If that's not a word, it is now.)

Thanksgiving, a Quintessentially American Celebration

The third Thursday in every November is designated Thanksgiving in the United States, and it is a quintessentially American celebration. (I might include Halloween or even the Super Bowl in that category, depending on how curmudgeonly I'm feeling.) Throughout the country, it's a time to gather the family together and eat too much--the centrepiece generally being a fat and pungent-smelling bird--and at times express gratitude. I think. Although it's been a good couple of decades since I've sat down to an American table myself, so this is all based on memory and hearsay. Here I'll explain a bit about the history and then provide an overview of the representative dishes generally appearing at the table, and their significance.

The History

There's an old joke sometimes repeated, generally by self-styled Progressives, that goes, 'I celebrated Thanksgiving the traditional way: I invited all my neighbours over and had a huge feast, and then I killed them and took their land'.

It is often thought--indeed, taught in elementary schools throughout the US--that the European settlers in North America were starving because they didn't know how to grow food in the American soil and were unaccustomed to either growing or harvesting the indigenous crops, and the magnanimous Indians helped them to survive, but later the settlers forgot their debt of gratitude and massacred all the Indians. The reality, of course, like so much else, is more complicated.

The settlers probably suffered more from the collectivist systems of governance and social organisation in place in the early colonies than they did from their agricultural ineptitude. Many of them found it much more efficient and effective to feed from the public trough when times got tough, and community supplies waned severely when times got hard. It took a severe winter and lots of starvation for the leaders to finally change the system, but when they allowed each family to fend for itself and keep a greater portion of its own produce, the whole community ended up quite a bit more prosperous (prosperity being a relative term, of course). Throughout this they did have to fend off unprovoked Indian attacks from time to time, and it was a while before friendly relations were even possible.

(See, there I go with the controversy. It's all a matter of public record, though, and not hard to find if one looks for it. This is where a Comments section would be immensely helpful--it might invite quite a colourful debate with, say, people whose historical knowledge extends only as far as the last few months of The New York Times. But I digress.)

After the settlers had generated a bit of surplus produce they were able to enjoy a feast together with the Indians, who in turn shared some of their knowledge about surviving on the Continent. Relative to the standard narrative, it would be more accurate to say that the settlers were thankful for their newfound abundance, not starving to death, and not being attacked while trying to wrestle a living from an alien and hostile environment.

The Food

Now that we're done with the controversial part, we can move on to the food. On the principle that it just might be more interesting to read what Americans (or, at least, certain ones including the present typist) know and don't know, I'm just going to describe all of this off the top of my head without recourse to any printed or online assistance whatever.

The Turkey: Originally a guinea fowl, actually, the bird now customarily eaten in the United States was named after the country of Turkey, for reasons now obscure and debatable. It isn't the same bird found in either Asia Minor or anywhere in the British Isles whence the so-called Pilgrims came. But it was close enough, apparently. The traditional way of preparing it is to fill it with stuffing (see below) and bake it in an oven for many hours, opening the oven door from time to time to 'baste' the bird, which process refers to, I think, squirting a buttery solution from a dropper-like device called a 'baster', and brushing it all over to add to the taste and colour of the turkey.

Stuffing: I'm pretty sure this is a mixture of turkey innards and leftover bread, combined with herbs like parsley and oregano. I think it's made by gutting the bird and mixing it all up before stuffing it back in--hence the name. There are prepacked versions that come in a box, and I'm told some people actually enjoy that stuff. I believe Stove Top is the representative boxed stuffing brand.

Cranberry Sauce: Cranberries grew in abundance in the northeastern United States in the late autumn harvest period. They weren't that different from what the settlers had eaten in the Old World, and were easily adapted as a dressing for the American bird. The sweet and sour flavour is supposed to compliment the rich pungency of the stuffed turkey nicely.

Potatoes: These tubers were not native to any European country but were originally from South America or thereabouts. The American Indians used something like the ancestors to both the modern white and sweet (yam) varieties. At Thanksgiving the sweet variety may be eaten baked, perhaps with butter and brown sugar, or made into a pie. The white variety are normally baked and poured over with gravy.

Gravy: Another enigmatic but quintessential Thanksgiving food. My mother told me it was originally made of cow blood and white flour, but I think she might have been saying that to gross me out. I've seen recipies for it, and they aren't that bad. Plenty of them are available all over the internet.

Pumpkin Pie: When I was a child my paternal grandmother made what I'm sure was the most delicious pumpkin pie in the world. The pumpkin, it should be known, is not the same vegetable as the one we call 'kabocha squash' in the US, although the Japanese word 'kabocha' covers both species. Actually, by this point I'm persuaded that the Japanese use kabocha to refer to just about every type of squash except zucchini, but the point is that the big orange vegetable is in a class of its own. Its uses are much more limited than the smaller type of squash with the green skin, and pumpkin pie is probably the best culinary use of pumpkin. (It is used at least as much as a decoration, particularly carved into a lantern with a face for Halloween--a big step up from the lanterns made of turnips they used in Ireland before the settlers arrived in North America and were introduced to pumpkins. Possibly by the Indians. But that's another long story.)

Now do with that information what you will.