Our iconic American Thanksgiving celebration commemorates the travails and eventual triumphs of a band of English nonconformists who landed in what is now Massachusetts in December of 1620. As you may know, winter is not the best time to go camping in New England; the Mayflower migrants faced challenges. Some 46 of the 102 immigrants died before the winter was out.
Tradition suggests that the Pilgrims fared poorly because they were short of food. Not exactly. The ocean and nearby rivers were full of seafood— oysters, clams, lobster, fish. Surrounding forests teemed with game—deer, moose, rabbits, geese, ducks, turkeys. But as Waverly Root explains in Eating in America, the Pilgrims were “not quite the right persons to wring a living from a wilderness, even a well-stocked wilderness. What the situation called for was lumberjacks or peasants or laborers, men and women accustomed to working with their hands and with their backs.” The Pilgrims were middle-class folk—merchants, tradesmen, artisans—city dwellers who lacked experience fishing and hunting. Fortunately, the newcomers had help from Native Americans.
According to Mr. Root, “It was an Indian habit to stow away caches of long-lasting foods … where they might one day be needed; it was the Pilgrims’ good luck to stumble on one of these caches, which kept them alive (some of them) over their first terrible winter.”
When winter’s gales at last gave way to spring breezes, the resolute survivors set to work planting crops and learning to hunt and fish from their Native American neighbors. Prosperity was just around the corner.
At summer’s end 1621, it was time to party. A Pilgrim leader named Edward Winslow described the festivities: “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. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.” Native Americans joined the celebration, including “their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men … and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
Bill of Fare
Venison roasted over an open fire must have been the main course at that first Thanksgiving, likely accompanied by roasted turkey or possibly goose. In an article in Saveur, Yaran Noti reports that the partiers also may have enjoyed a stew of deer, fowl and root vegetables. Greens probably were served— cabbage and collards boiled “in the finest English tradition.” Of course, there was corn, prepared as grits or as Johnnycake.
What about liquid refreshments?
According to Mr. Noti, there was “Water. Crisp, fresh, spring water. No wine, no beer … nothing but water.” Nor was there cider; settlers didn’t plant apple trees in Massachusetts until later.
No wine? No cider? Horrors! As somebody observed, “A Thanksgiving dinner without wine is like a day without the sun.” Fortunately, the skies of simile have cleared since 1621. Life is easier today.
Roasted turkey has become the centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner for most of us.
“Stuffing” or “dressing” for the turkey is ubiquitous. A typical version comprises bread cubes, onions, celery, broth, parsley, rosemary and thyme. Chestnuts may be added. Or oysters! Other options are based on crumbled corn bread—sometimes augmented with leftover biscuits or saltine crackers. Sausage or jalapeños may be added.
Tasty side dishes abound, including cranberry sauce and sweet or white potatoes, which the Pilgrims did not have.
What wine should we serve with all that rich food?
Recommendations vary, but in my view, it is advisable to accompany Thanksgiving dinner with light, fruity wines that pair well with white or dark turkey meat and are sufficiently tart to balance heavy side dishes. Beaujolais, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and sparkling wine fill the bill.
The Beaujolais region of eastern France is divided into three parts. Wines from the south are labeled Beaujolais. Wines from the central section are marked Beaujolais Villages. Those from the north bear the names of the crus or subregions where they originate—including one called Fleurie.
Wines of Fleurie, generally served slightly chilled, typically offer graceful flavors of red berries. In other words, a bottle of Fleurie could be just the ticket to accompany your Thanksgiving feast.
Made of the Gamay varietal, the purplish-garnet Château de Poncié Fleurie Le Pré Roi 2014 ($25) has a bouquet reminiscent of violets and grape jam. Its flavor is a subtle amalgam of grapes and raspberries—black and red—with crunchy red apples in the background. As the wine’s temperature rises from its initial slight chill level of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the distinctive fragrance and flavor of the Gamay grape become apparent. Wonderful with Thanksgiving food, the Château de Poncié is equally delightful paired with quiche, stinky cheese or charcuterie.
Cerasuolo di Vittoria
Cerasuolo is a blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato from Vittoria in southeastern Sicily. The name means “cherry like.”
Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2015 ($24) offers a lush ruby color and a thought-provoking bouquet of cherries, orange rind, raspberries and spices. Its flavor is as edifying as its bouquet—tart, with an elegant and uplifting fruitiness that melds dark cherries, pomegranates, blackberries and orange rind. (I couldn’t help thinking of Sicilian blood oranges as I sipped.) An admirable Thanksgiving wine, Planeta’s Cerasuolo also pairs very well with salmon or seared tuna.
Sparkling wine pairs with everything— including turkey with all the trimmings.
Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut Rosé ($30) is a blend of base wines from the Carneros, Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and Marin County areas of Northern California. Shining a pink-salmon color in one’s flute, the Mirabelle emits a tangy bouquet with evanescent yeast. Vivacious bubbles introduce its mouthwatering flavors of cherries and strawberries with nuances of honeydew melon and lemon rind. There is a suspicion of caramel on the finish.
Writer Melanie Kirkpatrick points out that “New England tribes had been celebrating harvest feasts of thanksgiving long before the Mayflower carried the Pilgrims to Plymouth.” Thanksgiving celebrations in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565; in San Elizario, Texas, in 1598; and in Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, in 1619, also preceded the Pilgrim’s fabled 1621 event. New Englanders did not have a monopoly on gratefulness.
Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to reflect on our manifest good fortune. As we give thanks this November, let us take a moment to contemplate what our forebearers accomplished in centuries past. Let us raise our glasses high in their honor. Then pass the turkey!
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? Email Robert: firstname.lastname@example.org.