Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Harvest Feast

by A. Cort Sinnes

The first Thanksgiving was all about the harvest, and the settlers gratitude for it.

The first New World Thanksgiving celebration - the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 - wasn't really a Thanksgiving celebration at all (at least not as we have come to know it). It wasn't held on the fourth Thursday in November, and it wasn't held indoors. No, that first harvest celebration actually occurred somewhere between mid-September and late October and represented the continuation of an ancient secular festival known as Harvest Home, well known to the Pilgrims from their homeland. It's an idea whose time may have come again.

Traditionally celebrated after the main crop had been harvested, Harvest Home was, according to one historian, an annual event characterized by cakes and ale and hang the cost." Harvest Home festivals became so rowdy that none other than Henry VIII (a ruler not known for his aversion to a good time) let it be known that if the farmers were going to party with such earnestness, they should at least wait until the entire crop had been safely stored away.

Not only did William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony at the time, hold the celebration outdoors, but he and his guest of honor, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, presided over a great deal of activity among the 90 braves, 35 Pilgrims and 66 "strangers" (as the non-Pilgrims were called) during the meal.

"Activity" may be too mild a word. To quote from Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays by Robert Myers (Doubleday, 1972): Captain Miles Standish paraded his group of soldiers in a series of maneuvers ... Blank volleys were fired and bugles sounded. Stool ball, a kind of croquet game, was played. [Chief] Massasoit ... came with 90 braves, who competed against the settlers in racing and jumping games. The Indians showed their bow and arrow marksmanship, and the white men exhibited their skill with firearms. The celebrants are even reputed to have played games of chance.

The event was so successful and free of rancor it lasted for three days!

Why, with all their piety and aversion to celebrations in general, the Pilgrims chose to commemorate their first successful harvest with a raucous secular celebration instead of a solemn religious one is something we will never know. It wasn't until 1623, two years later, that the fall harvest was observed by sacred days of fasting and formal Thanksgiving.

If you find the idea of an exuberant Harvest Home more appealing than a formal Thanksgiving meal, at least it's an historically accurate option. After the last of the harvest has been plucked from my garden here in the Napa Valley, I find there's no better way to enjoy these riches than to pull out the picnic table and croquet set, call up friends and pass the ale. And if the crisp fall weather dictates that you move your feast indoors, it can still be your own unique way of saying thanks for nature's bounty and the blessings of the earth.

The following recipes feature fresh vegetables. All feed approximately eight people and can be easily doubled for feeding a crowd.

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