Thanksgiving birthplace remains open to debate
November 22, 2019
Was the first Thanksgiving in the U.S. celebrated in Virginia? University Libraries’ Kira Dietz is asked that question every year. “Like many good questions, the answer is, it depends,” said Dietz.
For many, Thanksgiving means feasting. Dietz, assistant director for the University Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives, oversees an archive of more than 5,000 books and 100 manuscripts dating back to the 1800s — all related to food and drink. Her passion for food began in her family’s kitchen.
“My parents raised me in the kitchen. They each had a different approach. My dad would make something without a recipe and based on what he had on hand,” said Dietz. “My mom and step-dad would start with a recipe and maybe adjust it a little, at least the first time around. I’m one of the most chaotic bakers. I know baking is supposed to be a science, but I don’t care.”
She relates her love of cooking chaos to recipe books from the 1800s and 1900s housed in special collections. “We didn’t have standard measures like a teaspoon, cup, tablespoon until 1896,” said Dietz. “Some recipes included generalizations such as a teacup of sugar or add butter the size of an egg. What does that mean? Even chicken eggs come in different sizes.”
Some of the earliest recipes list the ingredients without measures and with the meager directions like cook in a slow oven. Many recipes were passed down verbally through families and communities and some reflect traditional Thanksgiving fare.
But, did the first Thanksgiving feast happen in Virginia? Maybe. In 1619, a group of colonists arrived at a site 20 miles from Jamestown at Berkeley Hundred. The colonists created a charter that declared a “day of thanksgiving” each year, commemorating their arrival in Virginia.
“If we agree to the December 4, 1619, date, then Virginia may still claim the first Thanksgiving,” said Dietz. “However, many scholars hold out for the more famous three-day feast and harvest festival in 1621.”
The accounts of the 1621 festival include similarities to the traditional American holiday.
“Descriptions of the harvest leading up to the feast and the autumn, in general, suggest foods that define the modern Thanksgiving, especially wild turkey, corn, and green vegetables,” said Dietz. “I would agree that the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony was most influential on modern Thanksgiving menus.”
Thanksgiving menus have evolved through the ages, due to publication of recipe books and the invention of modern kitchen technology.
“All of what we think of as traditional Thanksgiving dishes were native to the America’s from the time of the English settlers’ arrival in the 17th century. And even if the holiday wasn’t celebrated formally until 1863, we can find recipes for most, if not all, of these dishes in some of the first American cookbooks.”
In 1742, the first cookbook printed in America, Williamsburg art of cookery by Helen Bullock, was printed in Williamsburg, Virginia. According to the book, it’s a collection “of upwards of five hundred of the most ancient & approv’d recipes in Virginia cookery” and includes a sausage stuffing recipe for turkey. It may not be labeled as a Thanksgiving recipe, but after all, it’s stuffing.
“If we look at 18th- and 19th-century recipes, their influence on the modern Thanksgiving tradition is undeniable. Today, there are lots of cookbooks and recipes labeled Thanksgiving, and the majority of them are modern,” said Dietz. “Many families still emphasize tradition, whether that means reading classic recipes, trying new classic recipes, or relying on recipes cooked year after year by previous generations.”
Dietz can talk about dishes all day, but her point is clear. “Even before it was recognized as an official holiday, Thanksgiving’s roots were established in America, and with at least a little help from Virginia.”