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Check It Out

Courier Article by Carol Banks
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thanksgiving a Time to Dig in to Feast's History

"Over the river and through the woods/To Grandfather's * house we go..." If you find yourself humming this beloved song this week, you will not be alone. Written originally as a poem over a century ago by Lydia Maria Child, it has become part of our Thanksgiving heritage. Interested in learning more about Thanksgiving traditions? Just remember that your library has a bounty of great books to share about this homespun American holiday.

The Pilgrims and early Native American tribes may have celebrated a great harvest back in 1621, but the official national holiday almost never happened. So this Thursday, give thanks to Sarah Josepha Hale, for staging a one-woman campaign "…to make Thanksgiving a holiday." Sarah, a nineteenth-century magazine editor, bombarded every President from Taylor to Buchanan with thousands of letters to set aside a national day for giving thanks. Each President, in turn, balked at the proposal. Finally in 1863 amidst the terrible days of the Civil War, President Lincoln agreed with Sarah and penned into law the first national Thanksgiving Day. It took her thirty-eight years but Sarah never gave up. As Laurie Halse Anderson writes in her book Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, "never underestimate dainty little ladies" and what they can do. (If the name Sarah Josepha Hale sounds a bit familiar—it should. Sarah is the author of perhaps the most famous of all nursery songs, "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

So you think you know everything about the Pilgrims, right? Odds are you can learn even more by browsing Nathaniel Philbrick's The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World. Philbrick's very readable text gives an enlightening account of the Pilgrim Fathers (and Mothers!) and their first years in the New World. For example, did you know the Pilgrims were utterly amazed by the tree colors of autumnal New England? In the "old country" because of the "cloudy fall days and warm nights" the colors of the trees in autumn tended to be dull at best. In New England, however, the "sunny fall days and cool but not freezing nights" produced vibrant shades of yellow, gold, russet, and scarlet. Did you know that two modern-day holiday dining staples, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, were not even served at that First Thanksgiving meal? Deer meat, pottages (savory stews filled with meat and vegetables), game birds, corn, peas, and beans were among the foodstuffs that did make the menu, however. Did you know that forks were not used at the first feast? Fingers and knives were the only utensils available. It makes me smile to think of those very solemn Pilgrims navigating peas on a knife!

Any Webster's dictionary will define feast as "an elaborate meal" but in One is a Feast for Mouse: A Thanksgiving Tale (written by Judy Cox with pictures by Jeffrey Ebbeler) a bespectacled rodent is quite sure that the "teensy-tiny, toothsome, green pea" he spies among the leftovers on the humans' dinner table will be quite sufficient for his own Thanksgiving meal…that is until he sees the leftover cranberries. Carefully balancing ONE saucy red berry atop the ONE green pea he sets off for his hidey-hole in the cuckoo clock. Along the way he adds ONE black olive and ONE carrot stick. Further down the table he discovers ONE scoop of leftover mashed potatoes on a plate…and what would mashed potatoes be without ONE dollop of rich gravy? And turkey, oh yes, ONE platter of succulent turkey. And there's more! ONE piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Irresistible. With all the skill of a master juggler, Mouse oh-so carefully heads home with his piled to the ceiling feast until the sharp-eyed Cat of the house blocks the escape route of this ONE Mouse. As Mouse skids to a frantic stop on the tabletop, food and dishes fly clatter-bang to the floor, waking the dozing humans in their comfy chairs. Cat, of course, gets blamed for the mess and Mouse skedaddles home with his treasure, "ONE teensy-tiny, round and toothsome, green and luscious pea." Quite a feast indeed!

* The original poem says "Grandfather's" house, not the more familiar
Grandmother's house that we sing today.