January 23, 2021

Giving Thanks in a Pandemic

Come ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home . . .

Well, maybe not this year.

It’s 2020 and starting back in March, our lives changed as the pandemic started spreading across the land. We sheltered in place, incessantly spritzed with hand sanitizers, and began wearing masks every time we dared to venture out in public.

Now it seems that 2020 will be a demarcation date on our timelines. Do you remember what it was like PC (Pre-COVID) when you could hug your friends and meet them for dinner at a favorite restaurant?

More importantly, who could have imagined that nine months later the COVID crisis would have worsened with a death toll of more than a quarter of a million Americans and still spiking? And now it’s Thanksgiving—a time to gather round the table with family and chow down on favorite foods. But many of us will not be celebrating the traditional way in this “annus horribilis” — as Queen Elizabeth would say.

Yet I have plenty to be thankful for (a song by Irving Berlin, by the way.)

I am grateful for my health and that of my family, that I have a roof over my head, and that I go to sleep with a full tummy at night. Especially now when I know so many are suffering, grieving for loved ones, or wondering how to put food on the table.

And I am thankful for all those working on the front lines—from health care workers to those stocking grocery shelves—who have helped us to keep the home fires burning. The heart I placed on my kitchen door last spring is still hanging there and there are many heart signs still in place around our town.

The thoughtfulness of family and friends have also been blessings in my life this year.

Sure, there are days when I’ve been depressed and it was difficult to keep my sunny side up. But how heartwarming it has been to have neighbors text, “Do you need anything at the store?” To receive phone calls from old friends asking, “How are you doing?” Or to have my niece stop by with a “care package” from Sift Bake Shop (my favorite chocolate croissants!)

Since I am a senior citizen and have feasted at many turkey dinners, I will add “Thanks For The Memories” of Thanksgivings Past.

In days of yore, my family would receive a package of pecans from Louisiana at the beginning of each November. They were from the trees in my aunt’s yard and it was a sign that it was time to start baking pies. As I child, I remember rising early with my mom to start cutting up the celery and onion for the stuffing and the periodic basting of the bird. And, oh, that tantalizing aroma of a turkey roasting for hours!

Though I am sad that I can’t be with my family for Thanksgiving 2020, I am counting my blessings and thinking of the song lyrics:

Someday soon, we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow . . .

Editor’s Note: Linda Ahnert is a resident of Old Lyme and former Arts Editor at the now-departed ‘Main Street News.’

She is a long-time docent at the Florence Griswold Museum and has volunteered for numerous local art organizations.

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It’s Thanksgiving … so Let’s Talk Turkey

As you busy yourself making plans for Thursday’s feast, we are pleased to republish a topical article about the evolution of this quintessential American meal that our good friend — and wonderful writer — Linda Ahnert of Old Lyme wrote for us back in 2007.

Who Doesn’t Love Thanksgiving?

Giving thanks_bookA few years ago, a book entitled “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie” was published.  The co-authors are Kathleen Curtin, food historian at the Plimoth Plantation, Mass., and Sandra L. Oliver, food historian and publisher of the newsletter “Food History News.”

The book is a fascinating look at how an autumnal feast evolved into a “quintessential American holiday.”

Most Americans, introduced to the story of the Pilgrims and Indians during childhood, assume there is a direct link between the traditional holiday menu and the first Thanksgiving.  But we learn from the book that many of those food items—such as mashed potatoes and apple pie—were simply impossible in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621.  Potatoes were not introduced to New England until much later and those first settlers did not yet have ovens to bake pies.

What we do know about the bill of fare at the first celebration in 1621 comes from a letter written by colonist Edward Winslow to a friend in England:  “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”

Later 90 Indians joined the party with “their great king Massasoit whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”  Then the Indians “went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation.”

So venison was a principal food on the menu.  It also seems safe to assume that mussels, clams, and lobsters (all in plentiful supply) were served as well.   According to other journals of the colonists, the “fowl” that Winslow described were probably ducks and geese.  But wild turkeys were also bountiful in 1621, and so it is very likely that they were on the Pilgrims’ table.  Thank goodness for that.

Throughout the New England colonies, it became common to proclaim a day of thanksgiving sometime in the autumn.  In period diaries, there are many descriptions of food preparation—such as butchering and pie baking—followed by the notation that “today was the general thanksgiving.”

By the 19th century, Americans were taking the idea of a “thanksgiving” to a whole new level.  The religious connotations were dropping away in favor of a holiday celebrating family and food.  Roast turkey had become the centerpiece of these fall celebrations.

Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

Turkeys, of course, were native to North America.  (Benjamin Franklin, in a letter, had even proposed the turkey as the official U.S. bird!)  And turkey was considered to be a fashionable food back in the mother country.  Just think of the significance of turkey in Charles’ Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  When Scrooge wakes up in a joyful mood on Christmas morning, he calls to a boy in the street to deliver the prize turkey in the poulterer’s shop to the Cratchit family.  (Earlier in the story, the poor Cratchits were dining on goose.)

It is thanks to a New England woman that Thanksgiving became an American holiday.  Sarah Hale was a native of New Hampshire and the editor of “Godey’s Lady’s  Book,”  a popular women’s magazine.  She lobbied for years for a national observance of Thanksgiving.  She wrote editorials and sent letters to the president, all state governors, and members of Congress.

Finally, in 1863, she convinced Abraham Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving Day might help to unite the Civil War-stricken country.   The fourth Thursday in November was now officially on the American calendar.

Connecticut’s own Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this description of a New England Thanksgiving in one of her novels—“But who shall . . .describe the turkey, and chickens, and chicken pies, with all that endless variety of vegetables which the American soil and climate have contributed to the table . . . After the meat came the plum-puddings, and then the endless array of pies. . .”

The autumnal feast became a national holiday, but each region of the country put its own spin on the menu.   Not to mention that immigrants have also added diversity.  The result is a true “melting pot” of America.  The second half of “Giving Thanks” contains recipes that reflect what Americans eat for Thanksgiving in the 21st century.

In the South, for instance, the turkey might be stuffed with cornbread and there would be pecan and sweet potato pies on the table.  In New Mexico, chiles and Southwestern flavors may be added to the stuffing.

There’s the “time-honored traditional bread stuffing” recipe.  There’s also one for a Chinese American rice dressing and directions for a Cuban turkey stuffed with black beans and rice.  Desserts run the gamut from an (authentic) Indian pudding to an (exotic) coconut rice pudding.  Old-fashioned pumpkin pie is included as well as the newfangled pumpkin cheesecake.

But no matter what food items grace our Thanksgiving tables, it seems that we all end up stuffing ourselves silly.  Perhaps overeating started at that very first harvest celebration in 1621.  In Edward Winslow’s letter describing the feast with the Indians, he noted that food was not always this plentiful. But he wrote his friend in England “ … yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

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