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Thanksgiving traditions

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Let's cut to the chase. When and where was the first traditional Thanksgiving? Was it with the pilgrims in 1621 at Massachusetts Bay? How about Texas in 1541 or 1598? Or was it Maine in 1607? Maybe it was in Virginia in 1610, or Florida, where a small colony of French Huguenots living near present-day Jacksonville noted a special Thanksgiving prayer? This colony soon was wiped out by the Spanish. What makes this especially difficult is the fact that "thanks" was given at every meal during Puritan New England, regardless of whether it was a pot of stewed beans or a lavish spread. Heck, who wouldn't be thankful after a life-threatening three-month journey across the treacherous Atlantic, only to find a land with unseen aborigines peering at them from every tree and hill? To wander into an unknown territory without the slightest notion if you were going to be able to survive must've taken a special breed of people who were simply happy to have the opportunity to start life anew.

Now here is Maine's story.

'Sunday, the 9th of August[1607], in the morning, the most part of our whole company of both our ships landed on this island, . . . where the cross standeth, and there we heard a sermon delivered by our preacher, giving God thanks for our happy meeting and safe arrival in the country.'- George Weymouth.

English explorer George Weymouth had spent the summer of 1605 exploring the coast of Maine. Upon completing his mission, Weymouth returned to England, where the news of his voyages excited many of his countrymen - including several businessmen. A new venture to Maine was planned, and Weymouth again set sail to the New World with about 45 settlers. The group made landfall in Maine in August 1607 at the mouth of the Kennebec River at what is now Popham Beach. The settlement at Popham Beach lasted only 13 months, but ancient historians document that the settlers, having safely arrived from England, built their shelters and prepared for the coming winter, held a celebration of Thanksgiving in the fall of 1607, a full 14 years before the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving.

The reason that the settlement at Popham Beach was so short-lived is chronicled thusly: 'In the winter of 1608, the storehouse burned. That winter, the Popham settlement's president, George Popham, nephew of Sir John Popham, died of unknown causes. Raleigh Gilbert - a relative of the maritime adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh) - succeeded Popham. The following spring, a ship bringing supplies to the Popham settlement also brought Gilbert news that his brother, John, had died in England leaving him a vast fortune. Gilbert returned to England in September of 1608, bringing with him the remainder of the settlers.'

Lincoln and the Thanksgiving Turkey

Late in 1863, a live turkey was sent to the White House for the Lincoln family to feast on during the holidays. Tad Lincoln, age 10, quickly befriended the bird. Tad taught the turkey to follow him as he walked around the White House grounds. The turkey was named Jack, and Tad fed him as a pet. When the time neared to prepare the turkey for the Christmas meal, Tad burst into one of his father's Cabinet meetings. He was crying loudly. Tad told his dad that Jack was about to be killed, and that he had obtained a temporary delay from the "executioner" so he could put Jack's case before the president. Tad said, "Jack must not be killed; it is wicked." President Lincoln replied, "Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten ... I can't help it." Tad, still sobbing, said, "He's a good turkey, and I don't want him killed." Lincoln paused in the midst of the Cabinet meeting. He took out a card, and on it he wrote an order of reprieve. Jack's life was to be spared, and Tad raced out of the Cabinet meeting to show the presidential order to the "executioner."

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 1864, Lincoln was elected to a second term as president. A special polling place had been set up right on the grounds of the White House especially for soldiers who chose to vote. Jack the turkey actually strutted in front of some of the soldiers and broke in line. Seeing this, the president looked at Tad and asked whether Jack would vote. "He is under age," was Tad's reply.

The "holiday turkey incident" may have revived youthful memories for the president. When young Abraham was about 8, a flock of wild turkeys approached the Lincolns' Indiana cabin. Thomas Lincoln, Abraham's dad, was not home, so Abraham asked his mother if he might use his dad's gun. Nancy Hanks Lincoln gave permission, and Abraham shot and killed one of the turkeys. However, when the boy saw the beauty of the bird whose life was ended, he was very distraught. In Lincoln's own words, he never again "pulled the trigger on any larger game." Down deep, Abraham was known to love animals generally. He treated them kindly.

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The first-ever Macy's Day Parade actually took place on Christmas of 1924. But the first-ever Thanksgiving Day Parade in the nation was on Thursday, Nov. 25, 1920. It took place in downtown Philadelphia, was sponsored by Gimbels Departments Stores and was intended to kick off the Christmas holiday shopping season. Gimbels was a competitor of Macy's and wanted shoppers to follow his 50 elf-clothed employees and Santa through the streets to Gimbels Department Store.

In 1924 (the same year Alaska held the All-American Thanksgiving Day Parade) Macy's employees dressed as clowns, cowboys and other fun characters, and traveled with Central Park zoo animals and creative floats a lengthy six miles from Herald Square to Harlem in Manhattan. The parade was meant to draw attention to the Macy's store in NYC, and the gimmick worked - more than 250,000 people attended the inaugural Macy's Day Parade. It was decided that this NYC parade would become an annual NY event in Manhattan.

In 1927, Felix the Cat became the first giant balloon to ever take part in the Macy's Day Parade. In 1928, Felix was inflated with helium, and without a plan to deflate this massive balloon, NYC parade organizers simply let Felix fly off into the sky. Unfortunately, he popped soon thereafter. The Macy's Day Parade continued to let the balloons fly off in subsequent years, only these balloons would have a return address written on them, and whoever found the balloon could return the balloon for a prize from Macy's.

Despite the Great Depression, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade continued to grow through the 1930s. The first national radio broadcast of the Macy's Parade Thanksgiving took place in 1932. Two years later, Disney got in on the giant balloon fun, introducing the Mickey Mouse balloon in 1934. By then, more than 1 million people were attending this popular parade in NYC, and those fortunate enough to own a TV could see the broadcast on NBC starting in 1939.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York was temporarily suspended from 1942-1944 for World War II. In an effort to help America's cause, the rubber used to make the Macy's Day Parade floats were donated to the American military. More than 2 million people attended the 1945 Macy's Day Parade, and this popular New York City event has continued to grow ever since. And by the way, when you hear 'Jingle Bells' being sung during the parade, it is chronologically correct. 'Jingle Bells' was originally written as a Thanksgiving song - the author and composer was a minister called James Pierpoint who composed the song in 1857 for children celebrating his Boston Sunday School Thanksgiving. The song was so popular that it was repeated at Christmas, and indeed 'Jingle Bells' has been reprised ever since.

Thanksgiving Day football

The first intercollegiate football championship was held on Thanksgiving Day in 1876, and in 1920 President Woodrow Wilson recommended that professional football be played on Thanksgiving day to give people something to do after they ate a big meal. The games that year were:

Akron Pros 7, Canton Bulldogs 0

Decatur Staleys 6, Chicago Tigers 0

Elyra (OH) Athetics 0, Columbus Panhandles 0

Dayton Triangles 28, Detroit Heralds 0

Chicago Boosters 27, Hammond Pros 0

All-Tonawanda (NY) 14, Rochester Jeffersons 3

It is still alive in the National Football League in two franchise cities, Detroit and Dallas, where Thanksgiving Day football has become a normal, expected way of life. Beginning in 1966, Dallas has missed playing on the holiday only in 1975 and 1977. However, when it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, most fans first think of the Lions and the tradition that was started in 1934. It was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933. Even though he knew there was some risk in scheduling a game on Thanksgiving Day, Richards also recognized that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages. So as one way of attracting Motor City fans during the team's first season, he opted for the Thanksgiving Day contest. Thus the football-on-Thanksgiving tradition became firmly established in Detroit. With the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944, the Thanksgiving Day game has been played with no interruptions.

The wishbone

When turkey is served, it's traditional for two people to take the wishbone (the bird's clavicle), each make a wish and pull apart the bone to break it. The person ending up with the larger piece will supposedly get his or her wish. Although Thanksgiving is an American holiday, the wishbone custom was brought over to the new world by the pilgrims from England, where it had long been in practice. The ritual of breaking apart the wishbone can be traced back to the ancient Romans, who used other forms of fowl such as a guinea fowl or a chicken. The Romans, in turn, adopted the tradition from the Etruscans. Most likely, the Romans brought the practice to England. The Etruscans practiced a form of divination involving a hen pecking at grains of corn scattered about in a circle divided into sections with letters (which could be viewed as an early form of Ouija-style fortune telling). "When the fowl was killed, the bird's collarbone was laid in the sun to dry. An Etruscan still wishing to benefit from the oracle's powers had only to pick up the bone and stroke it (not break it) and make a wish; hence the name 'wishbone.'' We have inherited more than the Etruscan wishbone superstition. Etymologists claim that the expression 'get a lucky break' initially applied to the person winning the larger half in a wishbone tug-of-war.

Giving thanks

Of course, giving thanks to the bounty of the land remains the bedrock of the celebration and our country is not alone in that tradition. Other countries with an official Thanksgiving holiday include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, Liberia and Switzerland. It truly doesn't matter whom you give thanks to, as long as you are thankful for what you have.

Now Yankee benevolence (there are two words not often found together) was seen during holidays throughout New England. People would bring food baskets overfilled with fruit, maple syrup, vegetables, the lower end of the slaughter and other food items to the local preacher, who in turn would take what he needed and hand out the rest to parishioners who weren't as well to do as many of their neighbors. Both the back doors and front doors of the more affluent inhabitants were often being knocked on, with the knockers asking for anything the family could spare for the holidays. Although the classes generally miffed one another during the rest of the year, kindness and generosity were prevalent during Thanksgiving. Stout pillowcases were usually laden with foodstuffs after an hour or so, and even money was offered.

So with that in mind, let's have some good ol' Yankee food for the holidays. I will not tell you how to cook your turkey; everyone has their own little quirks, so here are some recipes to accentuate your family's centerpiece

Butternut squash and Yukon gold gratin with gruyere cheese

We normally put something sweet on our squash once or twice a year. And I do love squash prepared that way, but when I added savory to an already sweet squash, I thoroughly enjoyed the difference.

2 T. butter or margarine
4 c. thinly sliced onions
1 1/4 lbs. butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 1/4 lbs Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 c. half-and-half
1 t. salt
1/2 t. black pepper
2 c. fresh breadcrumbs
2 c. packed grated gruyere cheese
1 1/2 T. chopped fresh sage

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish. Melt butter in large skillet over med-high heat and add onions. Saut until deeply caramelized, about 20-30 minutes. Lay alternating layers of squash and potatoes in pan. Layer onions on top. Mix half-and-half, salt and pepper; pour over top. Cover tightly with foil and bake 90 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Mix breadcrumbs, sage and cheese in bowl. Sprinkle over gratin. Bake uncovered until top is golden brown and crisp, an additional 30 minutes.

Spiced pumpkin latte

Ever think of relaxing after dinner with a hot beverage? Here is the perfect one for you. Who knows? It may even take the place of dessert.

1/2 c. ground coffee
1 1/2 c. water
3 c. milk
3/4 c. canned pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. ginger
1/8 t. nutmeg
Whipped cream
Ground nutmeg

Place coffee in the filter of a drip coffee maker. Add water and brew the coffee. While the coffee brews, combine in a large saucepan the milk, pumpkin, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger and 1/8 tsp. nutmeg. Cook and stir over medium heat until steaming. Remove from heat. Divide the coffee into five mugs. Add the milk mixture and stir. Top with whipped cream and a light sprinkling of nutmeg (or cinnamon).

Brown sugar and orange glaze for ham

If you are having ham this year, I urge you to sweeten the pot. There is just something about the gently scent of cloves tinting fruit juices for your ham.

1 (12 oz.) can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
1 c. crushed pineapple (slightly drained)
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 t. ground cloves

Glaze your ham while it is cooking frequently.

Traditional Indian pudding with cinnamon cream

I didn't Yank this recipe too much. When you have something so inviting and unchanged for so lone, I really didn't want to frig with it.

5 c. milk
1 c. light cream or half-and-half
One stick butter or margarine
c. finely ground cornmeal
c. flour
1 t. salt
c. molasses
3 eggs, beaten
1/3 c. brown sugar, packed
1 t. cinnamon
t. nutmeg
t. ginger
Cinnamon cream to garnish; recipe follows

Preheat oven to 250 F. Bring the milk, cream and butter to the scalding point in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. In a medium mixing bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, and salt. Stir in molasses. Pour approximately 1 cup of the scalded milk in a thin stream into the cornmeal mixture, whisking constantly. When combined, pour the cornmeal mixture into the pot with the remaining scalded milk, stirring constantly. Cook over medium heat until thickened. Whisk the eggs with the sugar until incorporated. Slowly add about 1 cup of the hot cornmeal mixture in a thin stream into the beaten eggs, whisking constantly. Then add the egg mixture to the remaining cornmeal mixture, stirring. Add cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and stir to fully incorporate spices.

Grease a 2 qt. casserole dish and pour hot cornmeal custard mixture into dish. Bake at 250 F for approximately 2 hours, until the top is browned and the pudding jiggles only slightly when the dish is gently shaken. Let cool on a rack for about 1 hour. Serve the pudding warm, not hot, with cinnamon cream. Refrigerate leftovers.

For cinnamon cream: Whip 1 cup heavy whipping cream with 2 heaping tablespoons confectioners' sugar and teaspoon ground cinnamon until it reaches soft peaks. Serve with Indian pudding.

Feel free to toss in some raisins, chopped dates, or - my recommendation - craisins, if you like. This is also great with the cinnamon cream, above, or you can try it with a scoop of ice cream - I like French vanilla, butter pecan or cinnamon. Or go the traditional route and pour some thick cream over the top right before serving.

Spicy cranberry chutney

I think you will find this chutney to be a better side than ordinary cranberry sauce. If you don't want to bother with crystallized ginger, simply add 1 T. dried, but please just once a year, use the candied ginger.

1/4 c. dried apricots, finely chopped
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 cup raisins
1 c. water
3 c. fresh cranberries
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 c. lemon juice
1/4 c. chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 t. red pepper flakes

In a saucepan, combine apricots, brown sugar, raisins and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and stir while simmering for 5 minutes. Stir in cranberries, apple and lemon zest; simmer for 10 minutes more. Stir lemon juice, ginger and pepper flakes into the mixture before removing from heat. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

All day apple butter

What can't you put apple butter on? Spread it on crackers, fruit, raw vegetables, broken bread or dip your finger in it when no-one is looking. Truly a Yankee staple for the holidays.

5 1/2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
4 c. white sugar
2 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. salt

Place the apples in a slow cooker. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar, cinnamon, cloves and salt. Pour the mixture over the apples in the slow cooker and mix well.

Cover and cook on high 1 hour. Reduce heat to low and cook 9 to 11 hours, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thickened and dark brown. Uncover and continue cooking on low 1 hour. Stir with a whisk, if desired, to increase smoothness. Spoon the mixture into sterile containers, cover and refrigerate or freeze.

Last modified on Monday, 02 January 2012 10:42


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