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Drinks for Turkey Day if there's no turkey

By John H. Isacs   (Shanghai Daily)

16:27, November 22, 2012

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) by Jennie Brownscombe - Courtesy of The Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum

I adore a properly roasted turkey and love it even more when accompanied by a synergistic wine. But this Thanksgiving I'm absolutely not going to write about or eat this bountiful and flavorful fowl.

One reason is that I've already written several articles on turkey and wines and the other, perhaps more important reason is that there's no documented evidence of turkey being part of the first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621. Instead, in this week's column I'll explore wine pairings with the foods we know were consumed by the Pilgrims and Native American tribes 391 years ago.

The 120 Pilgrims who left Plymouth, England, in 1620 due to religious persecution were courageous souls fortified by faith. What they lacked was the requisite knowledge and expertise to survive the often brutal winters of what is now the state of Massachusetts in the northeast of the United States.

The extreme weather and privations of their first New England winter killed half of settlers who were more accustomed to and prepared for the milder winters of England. By late October or early November in 1621, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, there were only 53 settlers remaining.

But the following autumn with new homes and food gathering and cultivating skills learned from the Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims were far more confident and prepared for their second winter.

The first Thanksgiving celebration lasted for three days with big meals being served, after which there were games, songs and dancing. The foods of 1621 that graced their tables included some ingredients that are still common today and others that are not.

What they ate and drank

There are only two primary source accounts of the foods enjoyed that first Thanksgiving celebration, from Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford. Neither mentions wild turkey. Their accounts do mention wild water fowl, almost certainly ducks, geese and swans, as well as venison provided by the Wampanoag.

The fare from the sea most probably consisted of locally caught cod, sea bass, eels, mussels, clams, oysters, lobsters and even seals. Vegetables almost certainly included cool weather crops like corn, onions, pumpkins, turnips, cabbage, carrots, and spinach. Walnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts and acorns were also indigenous to the area and most likely accompanied the meats and seafood.

Unfortunately for the Pilgrims and Native Americans, there's no mention of wine being enjoyed at the first feast, but it's highly probable that the Pilgrims, who were experienced brewers, served beer at the 1621 feast. In fact, documents from the colony show that primitive brewery equipment was already in use by mid-1621.

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