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Handyman: Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast took planning

Glenn Haege

In November of 1621, the English colonists we call Pilgrims gathered with the Wampanoag Indians to celebrate the autumn harvest, an event that has often been referred to as the first Thanksgiving. Over the centuries, Thanksgiving has transformed into the huge holiday we celebrated yesterday that kicks off the holiday season. As we reflect on the feast we enjoyed yesterday, it is interesting to look back at how much Thanksgiving has changed since the days of the Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims certainly needed to say thanks for the autumn harvest, because they were farmers who relied on the crops they grew to provide food for the coming winter. Today, we still gather with family and friends, but the focus is less on the autumn harvest and more on American traditions like attending the Thanksgiving Day parade, gathering around the TV to root on the Lions, or even preparing your strategy for getting the best Black Friday deals.

There has also been a big change in the menu for the feast. Today, we go to the grocery store to pick out the appropriate-sized turkey for our gathering, and then cruise through the aisles to get the food we need to prepare the dinner. Compare that to the Pilgrims, who had to hunt for the ducks, geese and wild turkeys that were the mainstay on their table. No ready-to-cook turkeys or turduckens for them.

They would also have to pick all the vegetables that would grace their table, and would only have available what they could grow in the climate of the Northeast. So while our turkey is usually accompanied by loads of mashed and sweet potatoes, those Thanksgiving menu staples were not on the Pilgrim’s table because they weren’t available. They would have had pumpkins available to use as a side dish, but they didn’t have the butter or wheat flour available needed to make the pie crust for the pumpkin pie we all enjoy today.

The actual cooking of the meal has also transformed dramatically. The Pilgrims had to roast their wild game on a spit or boil vegetables in a pot over a fire because they didn’t have ovens. Fastforward to today’s meal where you are likely to have a double oven to help you cook both the turkey and side dishes at the same time, and a food processor and hand mixer to make the preparation easier. And if you are roasting the turkey outdoors, you are probably doing it on your new infrared grill or using a smoker on your patio to give that turkey a unique flavor. You might even have a turkey fryer that is all the rage these days.

While the Pilgrims may have eaten their meal at a large table similar to the one in your dining room, chances are it was outdoors or in a cabin that probably had a dirt floor and was covered with straw, not the new carpeting or hardwood floors you might have in your home. In fact, the term “threshold” was derived from the days when homes had a strip of wood across the bottom of the entrance doorway to keep straw — which was a part of the threshing process used to separate grain — from spilling out of the house.

It’s obvious with all the things the Pilgrims had to do just to prepare such a feast it couldn’t have been accomplished without proper prior planning. They didn’t have the luxury of making that last-minute run to the grocery store to get pre-made side items or picking up the phone and making reservations at a restaurant if preparing a meal for the family is not something they liked doing. They also didn’t have the opportunity to eat a turkey sandwich the next day like we do, because they didn’t have any way to refrigerate their food.

So when you look back at all the work that went into this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, remember how much harder it was for the Pilgrims to put on a similar feast and be glad you live in the time of modern conveniences. But also remember that even in modern times, there is still a need to do some proper prior planning for the remainder of the holiday celebrations. If you plan ahead, and enlist in plenty of friends and family to help, your holiday gatherings can be less stressful and more enjoyable. That is how you can be the perfect party host or hostess, and that is something you can brag about.

If you would like to suggest a question for this column, email If you want to talk to Glenn Haege, call his “Handyman Show” on WJR-AM (760) at (866) ASK GLENN, (866) 275-4536 between noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. “The Handyman Show” can be heard on more than 130 radio stations.