Virginia’s first ‘thanksgiving’ was more fast than feast
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — As you carve your roast turkey and give thanks for all that’s good in your life, remember to give thanks for this:
That you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving the way the first Virginians did.
That would be back in December 1619 — two years before those Plymouth Pilgrims buckled up their shoes and hats and sat down with their Wampanoag neighbors to feast for three days.
By comparison, Virginians at Berkeley Plantation, an English settlement along the James River between present-day Williamsburg and Richmond, were a fastidious little bunch: To give thanks, they fasted, not feasted, and basically spent the day in prayer and “humiliation,” or humbling themselves before God.
And when they did happen to eat turkey — say, at a harvest festival — let’s just say it was nothing you’d want centerpiecing your own Thanksgiving table.
“Their turkeys were a lot uglier,” said Frank Clark, master of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg and an expert in period cooking practices.
“Rather than the golden brown roasted bird that we associate with Thanksgiving today, they were boiled and white and covered with a cream kind of sauce. So they might think the turkey preparation was a little bit odd in terms of how we do it today.”
Boiled turkey back then wasn’t so much a culinary choice as a dental necessity.
“These birds were wild, which means they’re tough,” Clark said. “And by boiling them, you’re going to make it (edible) for the people who don’t have all their teeth — the state of dental care … was pretty bad.”
In general, he said, early Virginians would be struck by many of our modern Thanksgiving dishes. Not to mention their availability and affordability.
Take our sweet potatoes glazed with brown sugar or maple syrup and topped with marshmallows.
“That would be a very costly dish,” Clark said. “Costly, because of all the sugar in there.”
Forget classic mashed potatoes — Virginia didn’t even have white potatoes until after 1750.
Cranberries? Nope. That’s New England.
Pumpkin pie? Not quite. While early colonists had pumpkins and other gourds, pumpkin hadn’t yet achieved today’s pie perfection.
Where early Virginians do have us beat is in the healthy greens department. While today’s Thanksgiving table is heavy on carbs and sweets, fall was their season for salads.
“We think of salads as a summer thing, but salad greens won’t grow in the heat of Virginia in the summertime,” Clark said. “For them, salad was seasonal spring and fall.”
And if you love carrots, early Virginians had you covered. They had orange carrots, they had purple carrots, reddish carrots, yellow carrots, all kinds of carrots.
They also had seafood, courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers: crabs and oysters, striped bass and eels, and monster sturgeon.
If they could afford it, early colonists also had pork, beef, horsemeat, lamb and mutton.
For most early Virginians, though, said Clark, “their diet was really boring.”
“Every day, it was the same thing: some kind of stew,” he said. “There’s probably corn in that stew, there’s probably barley or other grains in there. There’s a little bit of salted pork and there’s a lot of vegetables. Those would change a little bit through the seasons.
“But that’s the kind of thing that you would find on pretty much anyone’s table — breakfast, dinner and supper. They’re making one big pot of stew and they’re eating on it all day.”
They were also pretty much drinking ale or beer all day. Water was considered not so much dangerous for all the nasty parasites and microbes it could carry, but because it wasn’t fattening enough. And fat meant you wouldn’t starve. Plus, beer was just darned tasty.
“The concept that ‘we know that our water’s bad and we’re only going to drink beer because it saves us’ is kind of an oversimplification,” said Clark. “Really what they were saying is, ‘We like beer better, it’s a lot more fun than water, it’s a lot more filling and nutritious than water.’ ”
Cider came in a close second. Rum — again, if you could afford it — third.
But ale was a good option, says Lisa Landino, chemistry professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
“Ale, their version of beer, usually only had low ethanol concentrations,” Landino said. “So long as you had enough alcohol in your beer to keep other things from growing, it was actually a better choice, because it was free of other kinds of microbes.”
Every Thanksgiving, Landino devotes one advanced biochemistry class to modern food myths around the holiday.
The biggie is whether the tryptophan in turkey primes people for the classic post-meal nap.
The short answer is no.
Tryptophan is a foundational amino acid in food that the body uses to produce the brain chemicals serotonin and melatonin, both of which are linked to drowsiness, among other things.
But turkey contains no more tryptophan than chicken or other meats or foods, Landino said. In fact, ounce for ounce, there’s more tryptophan in, say, cheddar cheese than turkey.
A bigger culprit would be all the carbohydrates in the classic Thanksgiving meal: potatoes, cheesy green bean casseroles and breads, for instance, including the turkey stuffing. Carbohydrates are digested into sugar or glucose, and make tryptophan more accessible to the brain, inducing drowsiness.
Meanwhile, pumpkin pie and other sweets only make matters worse.
“Paradoxically, what probably makes people sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner is . . . dessert,” neuropharmacologist Richard Wurtman told Scientific American. Wurtman is with the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Eating carbohydrates increases brain serotonin in spite of the fact that there is no tryptophan in carbohydrates.”
Sleepiness is also a natural consequences of simple overeating.
“Studies have indicated that stretching of the small intestine induces sleepiness and a protein-fat loading of the stomach induces sleepiness,” biologist H. Craig Heller at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., told Scientific American. “And more blood going to the gastrointestinal tract means less going elsewhere,” to the brain, for instance.
“You just have a certain amount of blood circulating,” Landino explained. “And if it’s digesting, you have to have more active blood flow to the gut to metabolize a big meal. And that just makes you sleepy because you’re not getting as much nutrient-rich blood at that moment to your brain.”
Finally, like those early Virginians, modern feasts usually include generous amounts of alcoholic beverages — beer, wine, hard cider, hard liquor.
And, like them, we don’t do it because we have to. We do it because, thankfully, we can.