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November 25, 2013

A short course on the history of Thanksgiving foods

LOS ANGELES — Ask the people around the table on Thursday about the history of Thanksgiving, and most will say something about the Pilgrims. If any Floridians or Southwesterners are present, you might find yourself in a debate about whether the first feast was held at Plymouth, St. Augustine or El Paso. Only a few might mention the Civil War.

This has been a big year for 150th anniversaries in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1. Gettysburg in early July. The Gettysburg Address just a few days ago. And coming up on Thursday, Thanksgiving.

True, settlers in English and Spanish colonies celebrated thanksgivings in their earliest years. And throughout the 1800s, New Englanders held such observances with their families and friends. But as a national commemoration, the holiday dates to 1863. That year, President Lincoln proclaimed a Thanksgiving holiday, even as the Civil War was raging.

So why, then, do we associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims? In the late 1800s, with immigrants - Jews, Italians, Chinese, other outsiders - pouring in, America's cultural leaders took two bits of shaky historic evidence from the early 1600s and embraced a story of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in an effort to Americanize an increasingly diverse population.

The myth of our holiday's Pilgrim origins took hold. But the dishes we eat at Thanksgiving? They capture other stories about the making of the American nation.

APPLE CIDER

Cider was once the national beverage. Later, unfermented, sweet cider would become more common on American tables, but before the mid-1800s, the hard stuff was the drink of choice for Americans - New Englanders most of all. Introduced to North America from Europe, apple trees grew well in the temperate climate, with many New England families pressing cider from their own orchards.

Production was so successful that in 1767, Massachusetts colonists drank an estimated average of 35 gallons of cider per person. Many believed it was more healthful and safer to drink than water. Cider was much more than a substitute for clean water, however. The good life, a young John Adams wrote in 1765, consisted of having "Bacon, and Cyder, and Books and Girl and Friend." Adams and his fellow New Englanders had their ancestors' ancient foes and New Englanders' traditional menace - the French - to thank for their favorite drink. Medieval Normans had brought cider with them across the English Channel. The people they conquered in 1066 would grow to love it and eventually took it across the Atlantic on their own quest for new lands.

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