Wherein boring old Thanksgiving turkey is replaced with even more traditional stale biscuits and garbanzo beans.
Here in the United States we recently celebrated Thanksgiving, traditionally viewed as rooted in a 1621 harvest festival celebrated by English Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe but more specifically established by Abraham Lincoln to celebrate the Union victory at the American Civil War Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. It is a day on which Americans gather, as did the Pilgrims of yore, to stuff ourselves with food we love while trying to avoid Grandma’s gelatin salad with…gag…celery and walnut chunks jiggling within the green goo, and dutifully praising the flock of handprint turkeys gobbling across the table (at least until globs of Grandma’s salad drip onto them and they gush into the construction-paper pulp from whence they came).
But what if in an alternate universe—or Florida, whatever—the first American Thanksgiving involved nary a belt-buckle hat or jello salad? Instead, the first American Thanksgiving was celebrated with Mass and what is now the traditional day(s)-after Thanksgiving meal: leftovers.
“Father, Pass the Stale Biscuits”
On September 8, 1565, Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Spain
led ashore 800 colonists to what would soon be named the settlement of St. Augustine. Watched by members of the local Timucua tribe, the Spaniards celebrated Mass to thank God for delivering them safely across the Atlantic, then settled down for a meal to which Menéndez reportedly invited the Timucuans. This was, Michael Gannon writes, “the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”
The Spanish colonists, not having the time to plant and harvest crops for a turkey-and-pumpkin pie feast, chowed down on the food at hand: leftovers from their voyage. This would certainly have been hard sea biscuits and red wine, and probably also included cocido, a stew of garbanzo beans and salt pork. Modern schoolchildren, to make the holiday more historically accurate, should be encouraged to draw handprint garbanzo beans for their grandparents: “Make a fist…no, Jimmy, do not stick out that finger on your fist…draw a line around your fist…now cut out your handprint garbanzo and sprinkle some glitter on it. Remind your parents about this quality education at the next school bond election.”
The Timucua might have brought turkey to the meal (we don’t know whether they provided any food), but also could have prepared shellfish, tortoise, catfish or even shark.
First Thanksgiving Again and Again
Of course, some groups would point out that this was far from the first Thanksgiving celebration on the American continent. Because it was common for European explorers to formally give thanks for a safe journey, there are numerous claims regarding earlier Thanksgiving celebrations. For example, in June 1564 a group of French Huguenots celebrated a thanksgiving Mass and feast (again with the Timucuans) at Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Florida; unfortunately, a few weeks after the Spanish Thanksgiving Menéndez led his troops to Fort Caroline and wiped out the French colonists in an event no one recommends using to replace modern balloon parades. Others claim an earlier group of Spaniards under Francisco Vásquez de Coronado celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving in 1541 in modern-day Texas.
The point, obviously, is that the traditional idea of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving is far from the only possible historical source. Perhaps in the future scientists will be able to resurrect Norman Rockwell so that he can paint a new classic Thanksgiving image of people eating beans and then feeling a bit gassy.
By the way: the image of the buckle-loving Pilgrim singing “one, two, buckle my shoe…three, four, buckle my belt…five, six, buckle my hat…seven, eight, buckle my wife’s chastity belt…” isn’t rooted in reality—the buckles o’plenty image was invented by Victorian-era artists.