The first New World Thanksgiving celebration - the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 - wasn't really a Thanksgiving celebration at all (at least not as we have come to know it). It wasn't held on the fourth Thursday in November, and it wasn't held indoors. No, that first harvest celebration actually occurred somewhere between mid-September and late October and represented the continuation of an ancient secular festival known as Harvest Home, well known to the Pilgrims from their homeland. It's an idea whose time may have come again.
Traditionally celebrated after the main crop had been harvested, Harvest Home was, according to one historian, an annual event characterized by cakes and ale and hang the cost." Harvest Home festivals became so rowdy that none other than Henry VIII (a ruler not known for his aversion to a good time) let it be known that if the farmers were going to party with such earnestness, they should at least wait until the entire crop had been safely stored away.
Not only did William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony at the time, hold the celebration outdoors, but he and his guest of honor, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, presided over a great deal of activity among the 90 braves, 35 Pilgrims and 66 "strangers" (as the non-Pilgrims were called) during the meal.
"Activity" may be too mild a word. To quote from Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays by Robert Myers (Doubleday, 1972): Captain Miles Standish paraded his group of soldiers in a series of maneuvers ... Blank volleys were fired and bugles sounded. Stool ball, a kind of croquet game, was played. [Chief] Massasoit ... came with 90 braves, who competed against the settlers in racing and jumping games. The Indians showed their bow and arrow marksmanship, and the white men exhibited their skill with firearms. The celebrants are even reputed to have played games of chance.
The event was so successful and free of rancor it lasted for three days!
Why, with all their piety and aversion to celebrations in general, the Pilgrims chose to commemorate their first successful harvest with a raucous secular celebration instead of a solemn religious one is something we will never know. It wasn't until 1623, two years later, that the fall harvest was observed by sacred days of fasting and formal Thanksgiving.
If you find the idea of an exuberant Harvest Home more appealing than a formal Thanksgiving meal, at least it's an historically accurate option. After the last of the harvest has been plucked from my garden here in the Napa Valley, I find there's no better way to enjoy these riches than to pull out the picnic table and croquet set, call up friends and pass the ale. And if the crisp fall weather dictates that you move your feast indoors, it can still be your own unique way of saying thanks for nature's bounty and the blessings of the earth.
The following recipes feature fresh vegetables. All feed approximately eight people and can be easily doubled for feeding a crowd.
West Indian Pumpkin Soup
This is not your typical, sweet-ish pumpkin soup. The addition of even a small amount of fresh lime juice, ground cumin and a fresh cilantro garnish give it a West Indian flavor. The use of cream cheese may be unusual, but adds a silky texture and does not curdle in the presence of the lime juice. Serve in a hollowed-out pumpkin, if desired.
2 T butter or margarine
Melt the butter or margarine in a large soup pot. Saute the onions and celery over medium heat until limp. Add two cups of the chicken stock and simmer until onions and celery are very soft.
Process stock, onion and celery mixture in a blender until smooth. (Processing hot liquids in a blender is best accomplished with short periods of on" and "off" to reduce the chances of the liquid "erupting."
Return this mixture to the soup pot. Add remaining chicken stock, pumpkin, white pepper, cumin and fresh lime juice. Bring to a boil.
Remove from the stove and whisk in cream cheese until completely dissolved. Serve immediately, with fresh cilantro leaves as a garnish.
Potatoes with Mint and Garlic
The combination of flavors - mint and garlic - along with a little olive oil are a wonderful unexpected accompaniment to the bland wholesomeness of boiled potatoes.
3 pounds new potatoes (or small Yellow Finns, or the like)
Boil the potatoes in salted water until just tender (approximately 20 minutes).
While potatoes are boiling, process olive oil, wine vinegar, water, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, mint leaves and garlic cloves together in a blender. Process, on and off, until the mint leaves and the garlic are finely chopped.
Strain cooked potatoes and place in a large bowl.
Immediately pour dressing over the potatoes, and mix well. Allow to sit for one hour or more. Can be served at room temperature or chilled.
Delicious and good for you, too! Ideal nontraditional stuffing to serve with Pandora's Turkey (recipe below).
3 c bulgur
Toss uncooked bulgur and chopped onion together in a large mixing bowl.
Bring vegetable stock to a boil. Pour over bulgur and onion mixture. Mix thoroughly and allow to sit for one hour. Pour bulgur/onion mixture into a large colander or sieve and press lightly to remove any liquid. Return to mixing bowl and add sage, parsley, olive oil, vinegar and black pepper. Mix well.
Can be served at room temperature, or stored overnight in the refrigerator and served cold. The vegetable stock is salty enough that additional salt probably won't be necessary.
Roasted Beets and Carrots with Orange Ginger Sauce
In the days of the Pilgrims, beets and carrots were of the mammoth variety - the best size for winter keeping - and were traditionally roasted over or in the coals. Once you've tried them, you'll wonder why we ever stopped cooking them that way. Absolutely delicious!
To charcoal-roast beets: After removing the tops, either lay the beets directly on top of white-hot charcoal briquettes or, if you have enough briquettes, actually bury the beets in the coals. Allow to cook for 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the size (hardball-sized beets will roast tender in about 45 minutes). If the beets are resting on top of the coals, turn once or twice to evenly "char" on all sides. Once the beets are tender, remove from the coals and allow to cool to the point where you can handle them. Using a sharp knife, remove the charred skins and slice the beets into 3/8-inch rounds.
To charcoal-roast carrots: Wash and scrub (but don't peel) carrots. Place them on the cooking grate, directly over the coals (which should be white hot). Turn every 10 to 12 minutes until nicely browned on all sides. Large carrots will cook tender in about 35 to 45 minutes, Allow to cool slightly and then slice lengthwise in 3/8-inch slices.
Arrange warm beets and carrots on a platter, drizzle with Orange Ginger Sauce (see recipe below) and garnish with a little chopped parsley, if desired.
Orange Ginger Sauce
Combine mayonnaise, orange juice and salt. Using your hands, gather grated ginger together in a ball, and squeeze tightly over the mayonnaise mixture. You'll be amazed at the amount of juice that comes out! Discard the pulp. Stir mixture and pour over warm, sliced beets and carrots.
Here's the simplest and best way I know to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving, or for that matter, at any time of the year. You'll need a covered kettle grill for this recipe. The reason it's Pandora's turkey is because once the turkey goes on the grill and the cover is put in place, there's no peeking allowed - period! The best part is that you can cook a 18- to 22-pound turkey in 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Here's how:
Ignite five pounds of charcoal briquettes in a covered grill.
Remove turkey from refrigerator 1/2 hour before grilling. Wash and dry it, and stuff neck and body cavities with a few handfuls of chopped celery and onions, mixed with a few tablespoons of melted butter and poultry seasoning.
Rub outside of the bird with vegetable oil or melted butter; sprinkle with seasoned salt and pepper, and place it in an disposable aluminum roasting pan.
When coals are hot, arrange them in even amounts on opposite sides of the fire grate. Put cooking grill in place, and position turkey (in its pan) directly in the middle.
Put lid on the grill. Leave both top and bottom vents fully open.
Do not remove the lid until the fire goes out, approximately 2-1/2 to 3 hours later, at which time your turkey will be perfectly cooked. Allow it to rest for 20 to 30 minutes before carving.
A. Cort Sinnes is the author of more than 20 books on gardening and outdoor living, including The Grilling Encyclopedia: An A-Z Compendium on How to Grill Almost Anything, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994; $16.
Photograph by National Gardening Association