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Turkey Daze

Investigating the myths, traditions, and folklore surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday By B. A. Nilsson

Even as the gravy boat and cranberry sauce circumnavigated the table as I was growing up, so too did reassuring-sounding tales of the traditions of Thanksgiving. You would have thought, to hear the chatter, that the 17th-century Pilgrims threw an annual party with their Indian neighbors as special guests, reflecting the general goodwill that prevailed and endured among the races. At the expense of many a turkey, of course.

Like leftover turnips, those rumors tend to accumulate until someone mercifully gets rid of them, so let’s go over a few of them. I’m indebted, not surprisingly, to the Internet, where Plimoth Plantation (www.plimoth. org) and contributed info. Not to mention The Thanksgiving Book by Jerome Agel and Jason Shulman (Smithmark Publishers, 1987).

For starters, it originated neither with the Pilgrims nor in the New World. This kind of feast certainly went on in England, and is traceable way back in time to the Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles, as well as to Greek and Roman harvest festivals.

Furthermore, it wasn’t even really a Thanksgiving. For the Pilgrims, that meant something even more solemn than their usual behavior. When you’re drinking and dancing and pigging out, you’re pretty un-Puritanical.

And those pictures of the black-and-white-garbed, big-buckled Puritans? You can put it down to having only black-and-white TV in those days, but the fact is that they dressed that way only for church or other formal functions. And they didn’t have those Brobdingnagian buckles! Those arrived on the fashion scene very late in the 1600s (and probably wouldn’t have appealed to the Pilgrims anyway). We are talking earth colors, though, so you wouldn’t have seen colorful Island wear at the table back then either.

What we think of as the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 when Governor William Bradford ordered a three-day feast to celebrate the settlers’ first successful year on these shores. It was a big blowout with the Wampanoag Indians as guests, and the event was facilitated by two former slaves—Squanto and Samoset—who spoke English.

And it’s true (as much as any nearly 500-year-old tale is true) that Squanto helped the starving settlers cultivate the foreign soil, resulting in a good harvest in 1621. But that wasn’t all. In October, Bradford sent out a group of hunters who, according to Edward Winslow, “in one day killed as much fowl as . . . served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming among us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”

But it didn’t become an annual event. The 1622 harvest was meager, so no party was held. The following year, the harvest was saved by a sudden rainfall, and another feast was spread. A half-century of very occasional feasts followed, with the Wampanoag made welcome, before the settlers decided to spend the next several years wiping them out.

All of the states celebrated a Thanksgiving on Dec. 18, 1777, as a reaction to the defeat of Burgoyne in Saratoga, but that was another one-off.

Was turkey on the menu back then? “Wild turkies” are mentioned in a contemporaneous account, and it’s presumed that the party tucked into other birds like geese, ducks and partridges, not to mention (and I promise I won’t after this once) cranes, swans and eagles.

There wasn’t available sugar, so no pumpkin pie, although a honey-sweetened pudding was possible. Potatoes weren’t grown there then, and what corn was available had at that point been dried to grind into meal. But we’re talking Plymouth, so there might well have been cod, clams and lobster on the table, an idea still worth exploring.

Was that first festival on the fourth Thursday of November? The date remains unknown. But the custom began to grow in the early 19th century, when the state of New York decided to have an annual Thanksgiving Day, slowly prompting other states to follow suit.

That Thursday business may have been chosen by President Lincoln in 1863, when he declared a day of Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, probably to honor the Nov. 21, 1621, anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod. Lincoln had been pestered for some time by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the widely read Godey’s Lady’s Book, who wanted a national Day of Thanks, and had been publishing a Thanksgiving issue each November beginning in 1846. President Franklin Roosevelt officially set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, which was formalized by Congressional approval two years later.

There’s one more myth to shatter: The day after Thanksgiving actually is not the busiest shopping day of the year. This doesn’t mean you’ll want to saunter down to Crossgates on Friday. It’ll be crazy, but it’ll be even crazier toward the end of December. It’s known as “Black Friday” because it’s supposed to be the day upon which retailers’ accounts move from the red ink to the black. Lots of people browse, but don’t spend as much money as they will later, making Black Friday only the fifth-busiest shopping day of the year. The other four typically fall on the two weekends before Christmas, hitting the top on the last Saturday before Santa arrives.

So dine well, refreshed with this knowledge, and shop lightly.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Professor Moriarty’s (430 Broadway) is holding a wild game dinner tonight (Thursday), with a menu consisting of such unusual items as appetizer preparations of ostrich and alligator, and an entrée selection that includes moulard duck, sliced buffalo sirloin and wild salmon, as well as a mixed grill of wild boar, pheasant and venison, all prepared by executive chef Jim Kelly. For more info and reservations, phone the restaurant at 587-5981. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail

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Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore


Elaine Snowdon

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky

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