In the U.S., Thanksgiving is a sacred meal. It can also be an EPIC meal.
At least for this not-so-Jewish, Jewish guy named Harley Morenstein.
Harley is the ring leader of the internet sensation turned FYI reality TV show, "Epic Meal Time." The goal with Epic Meal Time? Craft extremely high-calorie meals, preferably with an over abundance of meat products, especially bacon. Epic Meal Time has taken on just about every challenge, from a Christmas meat house to a fast-food lasagna. What about Thanksgiving you ask?
Their menu from a couple years ago include a turkey, duck, chicken, cornish hen, quail amalgamation wrapped in bacon and placed inside a roasted pig (that's a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a pig, for those wondering) with bacon croissant stuffing. It rang in around 80,000 calories. This year, they made a "Maize Dog" appetizer that involved duck and venison sausage (aka "Pilgrim Meat Log") deep fried in corn batter. Voila, instead of a "corn dog," you got a "maize dog." Happy Epic Thanksgiving.
In the process of creating such beautiful Thanksgiving mash-up meals, the boys did do some homework about the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Which raises the question — just what did the first Thanksgiving meal include?
Robert Tracy McKenzie, in his veil lifting work The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History, shatters a lot of misconceptions about what the first Thanksgiving was really all about.
One of McKenzie's contributions to setting the Thanksgiving record straight, and tenderizing some sacred cows (perhaps sacred turkeys) along the way, is when he goes over the menu that first Thanksgiving.
McKenzie wrote, "almost nothing we associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu." While wild turkey was perhaps on the menu, most likely duck, goose, and venison got on there too. On the side the Pilgrims may have added fish, mussels, and clams from the frothy seas and the traditional Thanksgiving eel fresh caught from local tributaries. Trimmings would have included Indian corn (succotash mashed), collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach, and cabbage. Sadly, there would have been no sweet potatoes (and certainly no marshmallows or brown sugar), no cranberry sauce, and (aghast!) no pumpkin pie.
Thus, as McKenzie concluded, those striving for tradition these days should serve turnips and eels this Thanksgiving. I guarantee you Martha Stewart will not have a recipe for "Mom's Favorite Thanksgiving Eel."
What McKenzie did not talk about was the very sacred nature of some of these foods for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including the Wampanoag. Too often, the story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is told solely from the Pilgrim's point of view, and when the Wampanoag are included, it is usually in a brief or distorted way.
While we may appreciate how Thanksgiving came to a founding story in America's conception of its manifest divine history and of the American civil religion, what of the sacred intimations of that 1621 meal "facing east from Indian country?" (Richter, 2001)
For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, cosmology came from the ground up. Cosmogonies and sacred myths were marked in the ground and various tribes understood their people as emerging from the earth. Concomitantly the indigenous peoples of the Americas shared a common philosophy that respected nature and its cycle (as hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists this makes sense), believed in using and respecting the bounty of land and sea so that it was "preserved for the seventh generation of the unborn," and held to giving thanks to the spirits for everything they were able to farm, collect, and hunt.
No wonder then that many foods became sacred to indigenous people of the Americas. As the peoples harvested corn, beans, squash, avocados, cotton, and chilies each of these plant were believed to be "imbued with sacred powers and came to play important roles in the mythology, calendar, ritual, costumes, ancestor worship, and performances" of many indigenous religions (Carrasco, 2014). In North America, the foods considered sacred were animal foods, rich in fat. According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, pemmican made with berries “was used by the Horns Society for their sacred meal of communion.” Boiled tongue was an ancient delicacy, served as the food of communion at the Sun Dance. A blood soup, made from a mixture of blood and corn flour cooked in broth, was used as a sacred meal during the nighttime Holy Smoke ceremonies and bear fat was central to strength for warriors before battle.
Most likely you won't be serving blood soup, bear, turnip, eel or sacred beans this Thanksgiving. Still, many of the foods on your plate have been considered sacred at one time or another. Here is a breakdown of the sacred nature of your Thanksgiving fare. So, as you give thanks, to whatever god, power, or person you prefer, remember just how sacred and epic of a meal you are about to enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving!
Not only do some Native American tribes view the turkey as a symbol of abundance and fertility, but wild turkeys were sacrificial guests of honor in fertility and thanksgiving ceremonies. To this day, Creek tribes still practice the turkey dance during its annual fire festivals. Down south, the turkey was thought to be sacred to ancient Mexican cultures. Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs viewed the turkey as a "jeweled bird" and also referred to it as the "Great Xolotl." Elsewhere, in South Africa, turkeys are used in sanghoma ceremonies.
Beyond being associated with 'the Forbidden Fruit' of the Garden of Eden (most likely a pomegranate, by the way), the apple has long represented eternal life, resurrection, and reproduction. From the Romans to the Druids to modern day pagans, apples are thought to be a regenerative source of spiritual power and able to ward off evil spirits and demons.
Haven't you wondered where the "Deviled" name came from? Yes, these are sinfully delicious (at least when my mom makes them), but they are known as "Deviled" because the word "devil" came to be applied to spicy, highly seasoned, dishes and foods starting in 1786. The spiciness was associated with the heat of hell and some people took this so seriously that at some church potlucks in the Midwest U.S. these devilish delicacies are renamed "angel eggs." It just doesn't have the same ring, does it?
To the native tribes of the Eastern and Southwestern U.S., "corn was the all-nourishing sacred food, the subject of innumerable legends, and the central theme of many rituals." (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984) The Penobscot people have a revered story of "the Corn Mother" and the Hopi say, "Moing'iima makes corn, everything grows on his body."
In Mesoamerica, natives compared the creation of human life with the creation of corn. Indeed, the Maya believed that the human body was composed of white and yellow corn.
Although this sweet delicacy was not at the original Thanksgiving and was not introduced to North America until much later, the sweet potato (known as kumara) is an important food in the cosmology of the Maori people of New Zealand (Aotearoa). It is believed that the umara was originally cultivated in the sky by the star Whanui or the god Maru, cousin of Maui. Carefully revered by the Maori because of its sacred genesis, there were ceremonies and rites to be observed if the kumara gods (stone statues set by tuber plots) were to watch over the crop and care for it.
While the flaky pie crust may be heavenly and the whip cream a sweet delight, pumpkin is a sacred food for many. It is used as a sacred offering to Oshun in Santeria and other Yoruba derived practices of the Caribbean and Latin America. It is said that pumpkin seeds, because of their "waste not" nature are considered a delicacy by the Orisha who reigns over love, intimacy, beauty, marriage, wealth, and diplomacy. Sometimes you may even see pumpkins set at shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, who represents Oshun in Santeria infused Catholicism in the Caribbean.
Of course, you may have also heard of the divine intimations and religious symbolism behind Linus' unwavering devotion to The Great Pumpkin in the peanuts special.
Beyond being protected as "sacrosanct" on my Thanksgiving tales, cranberries (associated with crane birds) represented fidelity in China and Japan. Yet, it is the Hartung people of North America and a small, but faithful band, of "Cranlog" devotees who show the most reverence to this sacred Thanksgiving tradition. As one devotee sang, "Hark, the heavens open and sing the joys of Cranlog!"