Thanksgiving is all about family. In modern America, it’s often the only time the extended family gets together.
This year I’m back in Connecticut for Thanksgiving which is today. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve had the opportunity to return home for the holiday, but this year I’m returning to New England for a Thanksgiving in the historic birthplace of the holiday. Like other Americans, on this quintessential American holiday we’ll joyously gather together to give thanks for our blessings.
The winter of 1620 and 1621 wasn’t kind to the newly arrived Pilgrims; about half the settlers perished. Next spring, the Plymouth Colony survivors built more sturdy shelters and with the help of Native Americans learned to exploit the abundant riches of their new land. In late October or early November 1621, the Pilgrims arranged a harvest celebration that lasted the better part of three days.
The only direct account of the first celebration is from the Pilgrim chronicler Edward Wilson, who wrote, “By the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we wish expression of gratitude for our plenty.”
According to Wilson, the foods gracing the long wood-plank tables included wild fowl, venison, lobster, mussels, clams, cod, eels, sea bass, breads made of corn, barley and wheat, and a bounty of local vegetables and fruits including peas, beetroot, wild onions, berries, plums and of course pumpkins.
The indigenous wild turkey was not specifically mentioned in Wilson’s chronicle but may well have been among the wild fowl served up that first Thanksgiving along with duck, swans and pheasants.
Let’s take a look at how to celebrate Thanksgiving New England style.
My family, as many others, places great importance on the table setting. The most important room during Thanksgiving is the dining room, where family and friends congregate to reflect on the significance of the holiday and revel in the opportunity to be together.
The hostess, this year my sister-in-law Nadine, spends many hours planning and arranging the place settings, centerpiece and other décor that feature harvest colors of vibrant gold, reds and yellows. Reflecting the ideals of plenty and bounty, a cornucopia or horn of plenty is filled with seasonal fruit. Pumpkins, gourds and dried corn also adorn the table while the finest china, silverware and crystal glasses add to the ambiance.
The host and hostess sit at the head of the table while honored guests sit to the right of the two. Before the feast commences, someone, often the youngest adult, honors the true meaning of the holiday by saying grace. This is the most spiritual time of the holiday, when families thank God for the bounty of their table and the chance to be together.
The hostess then signals the start of the meal by touching her food — then and only then can guests start feasting. Thanksgiving meals may last many hours as family and friends revel in past good times and share hopes for the future.
New England during Pilgrim times offered a bounty of regional legumes, starches, seafood and meats. Today even more delights are available with turkey as the major dish that steals the limelight. Traditional supporting dishes also play important roles. These dishes vary from family to family but here in New England there are several must foods.
Seasonal root vegetables including turnips, sweet potatoes and parsnip are not only delicious but also fortify one from the bitter cold New England weather. Important starches are the turkey stuffing that may consist of bread crumbs, diced onions, carrots celery, mushroom, giblets and sometimes sausage, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes.
A hearty turkey gravy and cranberry sauce are obligatory turkey companions. Dessert often features a variety of freshly baked pies filled with autumn ingredients like pumpkin, pecan and apple often topped off with generous scoops of ice cream.
As Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, it makes sense to stick with American wines that pair well with the main dishes and the flow of the meal.
This means starting light and fresh with a nice sparkler or white wine that performs equally well by itself as an aperitif with the light snacks and appetizers commonly served before people sit down.
Pick quality sparklers from top California producers like Domaine Carneros, Mumm, Iron Horse and Roederer Estate or go north and enjoy a Washington state bubbly from Chateau Ste Michelle.
Napa Valley Chardonnays from Robert Mondavi, Cakebread and Beringer are substantial white wines that can be enjoyed throughout the meal as they pair well with most all the holiday dishes.
Likewise, good Pinot Noirs from the Pacific Northwest are fresh enough to go with seafood dishes served as appetizers and robust enough for the savory roasted turkey, gravy and accompanying dishes. California Zinfandel or Syrah reds are friendly reds that also work well with the holiday dishes.
For something special, try one of the better premium Napa red blends. Well known wines like Opus One, Stag’s Leap Cask 23 and Phelps Insignia are among the best wines in the world that combine European elegance with Napa exuberance and power.
Equally impressive are Bordeaux style blends by boutique producers like Pahlmeyer and Viader.
All these wines beautifully embellish roasted turkeys and other supporting dishes.
Large format wines in big 1.5- or 3-liter bottles help make a special occasion even more memorable. Not only does wine age better in large bottles but they also look great. At the end of the meal, family members sign the bottle and thereby create a decorative bottle that commemorates the special family occasion.