Eating Eel: Your Guide to an Authentic Thanksgiving

Eating Eel: Your Guide to an Authentic Thanksgiving November 25, 2015

Yesterday Tommy Kidd praised Tracy McKenzie’s book for its “entertaining retelling of a seminal moment in American history.” I agree. In fact, I assign it to my Study of History course (which covers the methods and philosophy of history) at Asbury for several reasons. First, it unpacks some of the mechanics of good historical research. Second, it is a thoughtful meditation on faith and history. But my goal in this post is more modest, merely to explode the culinary myths surrounding the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving!  –David


Turkey might be traditional fare at Thanksgiving, but it’s probably not historical. If the Pilgrims ate any birds at all, historian Tracy McKenzie writes in his fascinating book The First Thanksgiving, they were probably waterfowl. William Bradford remembered that there were “swarms and multitudes” of ducks, swans, herons, and cranes. There were, said a Dutch West India Company agent, lots of turkeys too, but they had “very long legs” and could run “extraordinarily fast.” The Pilgrims probably didn’t catch many of them.

More history to ruin your Thanksgiving spirit: There were no sweet potatoes (not native to North America), cranberry sauce (no sugar available), or pumpkin pies (no butter or flour around for the crusts) either. So what was on the menu besides herons? Probably fish, eel, and perhaps a few garden vegetables like collard greens, parsnips, and turnips. The setting wasn’t conducive to a fancy feast either. Tables and chairs were scarce. The Pilgrims probably didn’t have knives, or even forks, which were dismissed by the middling folk of England as a “foppish pretension.”

So if you really want to be authentic tomorrow, eat some eel and turnips while sitting cross-legged on the cold ground.

Then again, Americans have shown that historical accuracy doesn’t have to correspond with meaningful tradition. So go ahead and eat some turkey. Or if you’re a foodie, you could try some other traditional recipes suggested by the food folks at American Food Roots:

  • Mussels Marinated in Oil and Herbs: Colonist Edward Winslow wrote that “We have mussels . . . at our doors.” The Pilgrims almost certainly ate them at the first Thanksgiving feast. And Thanksgiving feasts in New England still feature this delicacy.
  • Empress’ Zulu Greens: This side dish of collard greens comes from former African slaves. You might be surprised to learn that Thanksgiving was first unknown in the South—and then despised in the Civil War era. After all, it was a Yankee holiday, and one that celebrated the ancestors of the hated abolitionists. Virginia Governor Joseph Johnson declined to declare the holiday for his state in 1853. “This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving,” he declared, “has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching ‘Christian politics’ instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified.” What did he mean by “other causes”? Abolitionism, of course, which makes the traditionally southern consumption of collard greens at Thanksgiving a rather delicious irony.
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  • swek

    the authenticity of thanksgiving is in the sentiment one expresses for one’s blessings. the specific food is irrelevant, but is far too often the focus of the day.

  • iMarcusCicero

    How about letting the people who were actually there speak>

    In Mourt’s Relation, Edward Winslow wrote –

    “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 fruits 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 amongst 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. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

    In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford wrote-

    “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

    I don’t see no slippery eel