Ah, Thanksgiving. For many Americans, the mere mention of the annual feast conjures images of a golden-brown turkey, fresh out of the oven, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, casseroles, corn, cranberry sauce, and some good ol’ fashioned pumpkin pie. It is arguably the one national holiday devoted primarily to pleasing the palate.
The calorie count is matched only by the great deal of symbolism surrounding the original Thanksgiving feast, as well as the annual holiday tradition that has evolved over the past 400 years, explains Aaron Hostetter, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers–Camden.
“It’s present and right under your nose, so to speak,” says Hostetter, who examines the literary history of food, primarily in Old and Middle English literature. “However, you don’t typically think about the rituals and the cultural, political and economic implications of these rituals.”
As the age-old story goes, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving – a three-day affair of eating, fishing, hunting, and entertainment – in November 1621. After an unforgiving winter in 1620, which decimated their population, the Pilgrims sought help from the natives, who taught them how to hunt, fish and plant crops. The colonists then shared a feast with the Wampanoag in celebration of their first successful autumn harvest.
According to Hostetter, it is no coincidence that the colonists, with their European political background, solidified this pact with the Wampanoag over food, just as many cultures have sealed political or legal agreements throughout history. The feast of Thanksgiving – even in the name itself – also resonated with the Pilgrims’ biblical identity, deepening their roots of European Christian culture.
Nonetheless, Hostetter explains, the narrative of the first Thanksgiving is also symbolic of the English establishing a new, uniquely American identity by ingesting the Wampanoag’s food. The colonists departed from their set type of cuisine and cooking, further underscoring this profound moment of cultural contact and exchange.
“By ingesting the natives’ food, the English are becoming hybridized; they are irrevocably becoming something other than English,” explains Hostetter. “It was not only another’s food – but ‘the other’s’ food – people who were utterly not like them. It ties into the colonial narrative of contact and exchange that shows how different races and cultures could get along.”
This transformative exchange then becomes part of the mythos of the nation’s foundation, one that continues to be celebrated to this day, explains Hostetter. “We often locate the construction of a nation in legal documents, but this first Thanksgiving feast – an exchange of culture, food, and ways of life – is a very resonant birth,” he says.
According to Hostetter, Lincoln later codifies this rich heritage of cultural exchange and unity when he makes Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. “He was saying that enemies could sit down together and meet over food,” says Hostetter. “That’s a very healing gesture; it’s a lasting image to say, even in the midst of war, we can create traditions that can bring us together again as a culture, as a country.”
Hostetter notes that many dishes which have become synonymous with Thanksgiving were not even eaten during that first feast. Nonetheless, these holiday staples serve as deeply ingrained symbols of American cuisine. For instance, while the Pilgrims and Wampanoag most likely dined on duck, lobster and codfish, turkeys became a symbol of American eating, especially to the French. “The French were cuckoo for turkeys in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries,” says Hostetter. “The turkey becomes a symbol of the kinds of wonders that are available in the New World.”
Our present-day Thanksgiving feast, continues Hostetter, is a symbolic act of renewal which rekindles American ideals and virtues in the psyche. “That’s the great power and beauty of food,” says Hostetter. “You have to eat it again in order to redo the ritual. The identity that you gain from it is never final.”
Hostetter is currently working on a book, tentatively titled The Political Appetites of Medieval English Romance. He is also an avid translator of Anglo-Saxon narrative poetry, which can be found on his website, The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project.