When I say Thanksgiving, do you immediately think of a basted, golden brown bird on a large platter adorned with oranges, cranberries and sage? Maybe you think of a juicy oven-roasted ham bearing the traditional clove and pineapple scored design baked into its caramelized goodness?
Thanksgiving seems a holiday that’s as American as apple pie, or pumpkin pie for that matter. But actually, there are variants of this holiday all around the globe. Their meanings, dates and customs may vary, but they all revolve around the concept of gratitude and food, of course.
I think of these foods as traditional to the North American Thanksgiving holiday since I am North American. Other countries view traditional holiday foods through their own cultural lens.
For instance, while North Americans and Canadians both celebrate Thanksgiving Day, there are several differences between the traditions, practices and foods in the two neighboring countries. While the basic Thanksgiving foods are similar in name, in practice they are quite different.
For instance, Canadian pumpkin pie is spicy, with ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, while North American pumpkin pie is typically sweet and has custard in it.
The North American Thanksgiving holiday has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1789, after a proclamation by George Washington. The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. This feast lasted three days, and it was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 pilgrims to offer thanks for their blessings.
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)
Despite what we were taught in school plays, for many of the pilgrims, England was just a layover on the way to America. Approximately 40 percent of the adults on the Mayflower were coming from Leiden in the Netherlands. The people of Leiden still celebrate the American settlers who once lived there with a non-denominational church service on the fourth Thursday of November. Afterwards, there’s no turkey, but refreshments of cookies and coffee.
Canada’s Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year and has been an annual Canadian holiday, occurring on the second Monday in October since 1879, when Parliament declared a national day of thanksgiving.
Other countries have their own version of this holiday. Germany sees this celebration as a religious holiday that often takes place on the first Sunday of October. Erntedankfest is essentially a harvest festival that gives thanks for a good year and good fortune. Although turkeys are making inroads, chickens and geese are favored for the feast.
A food decoration for Erntedankfest, a Christian Thanksgiving harvest festival celebrated in Germany. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving
A variation on North America’s Thanksgiving can be found in the West African nation of Liberia. This country was founde in the 19th century by freed slaves frm the United States. Liberians take the concept of the cornucopia and fill their churches with baskets of local fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples. An auction for these is held after the service, and then families retreat to their homes to feast.
Kinrō Kansha no Hi is a national public holiday in Japan to celebrate celebration of hard work and community involvement. It is derived from ancient harvest festival rituals named Niinamesai. Today it is celebrated with labor organization-led festivities, and children creating crafts and gifts for local police officers. This is one exception in that food is not central to this holiday and turkey does not have a traditional role.
Tradition has its place in every culture, but more and more new generations are looking to make their mark on the culinary expectations of holidays. “Foodies” like to experiment and cook outside the classification.
What is seen as non-traditional to some will vary to the geographical area and history. I have a friend who through a series of unfortunate events failed to procure a turkey in time to safely thaw and prepare before the family feast last year. He instead prepared some stuffed pork tenderloins and the response from his family was joyous. They have declared this their new “tradition”.
Fusion is a result of mixed cultures and it is represented in food more and more. The gourmet food magazine, Food & Wine, offer alternatives to the Thanksgiving menu and they aren’t referring to just using a Cornish hen vs. a turkey. Out of the kitchen ideas like mushroom lasagna and sausages would make even the most traditional among us give pause.
Wherever you fall in the food spectrum – traditionalist or adventurer – there are many options available both for home preparation and dining out. More restaurants than ever are open on this holiday to give your favorite home chef the day off so everyone can gather and celebrate in their own way — together.
Melody Smith, Blog Wrangler and Extreme Foodie