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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