Most of us learned that the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 in Plymouth, Mass. But in reality, the first American Thanksgiving took place on Berkley Plantation in Virginia, years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. And this isn’t the only Thanksgiving fact to become fuzzy over the centuries.
From the correct date… to what they actually ate, a lot of historical details have been lost. Perhaps that’s why in the ensuing years, so many historians and artists embellished the story and imaginatively filled in the blanks.
But no matter when or where the first Thanksgiving took place, none of the early-American settlers invented the idea of the autumn harvest feast. In fact, this kind of annual gathering hardly originated in Plymouth. Or even in Virginia. Harvest celebrations actually had a long history on both sides of the Atlantic.
Unfortunately, the “Thanksgiving” we celebrate today bears little resemblance to those early feasts.
As with practically everything else, the modern American tendency to excess overshadows the original intent of these traditional gatherings. So today, when you dig into your turkey dinner, try to think about how our ancestors did things.
First of all, the colonists prepared traditional autumn feasts using whole, fresh foods from the season’s harvest. Today, we call this the “farm to table” movement. And it’s quite trendy. But preparing meals based on local, seasonal foods is also an extraordinarily healthy way to eat all around.
Fresh, local ingredients have the highest levels of health-promoting nutrients. So if you can, incorporate some locally grown items into your own Thanksgiving meal. And being in touch with the natural environment, including the seasons, is also healthy for the mind and spirit. Finally, giving thanks and showing gratitude is one of the healthiest of all emotions.
William Bradford, colonial governor during the early settlement in the Plymouth colony took an inventory of the crops the settlers grew that first season. He said they had, “All sorts of roots and herbs/parsnips, carrots, turnips/onions, melons, cucumbers, radishes/skirets, beets, coleworts and fair cabbages.” These certainly sound like delicious, healthy additions to any modern Thanksgiving meal as well.
Second, the whole community shared these wholesome, freshly prepared dishes.
Two surviving documents from Plymouth reference that first Thanksgiving celebration. One is by Edward Winslow. He wrote about this sense of community, “Amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming among us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, who for three days we entertained and feasted.”
Positive social interactions have many health benefits. After all, it’s not just what you eat but how you eat that contributes to your overall health. In this case, sharing a meal (and a glass of wine, cider or ale) with loved ones can help reduce the number one risk factor for heart disease — stress.
And finally, there’s one more aspect of traditional harvest celebrations we’d do well to apply to our own modern holidays. We’ve come to associate our Thanksgiving “feasts” with eating until we can’t possibly swallow another forkful. But our ancestors practiced an approach I’m always advocating.
Yes, I’m talking about moderation.
According to Winslow, the food prepared for the feast “served the company almost a week.” And you can bet that none of the pilgrims or Native Americans had to loosen their belts at the dinner table.
So on Thursday, try scaling back a bit. Enjoy a modest, rather than heaping spoonful of potatoes. A drizzle, instead of a deluge of gravy. And a sliver, rather than a wedge of pumpkin pie. And try a little bit of everything. You’ll still get all of the delicious flavors and variety — without the excess calories. Or the indigestion.
And here’s one more important point to remember…
We have Native Americans to thank for many of the incredible foods we will enjoy at the dinner table on Thursday. And we should thank them for sharing their traditions as well. Because, like so many good things in the Americas, thanksgiving for the harvest among Native Americans was around long before any Europeans settled here.
Always on the side of science,
Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D.