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North and South Thanksgiving: Massachusetts vs. Virginia

Monday, 11 November 2013 13:41 Jennifer Devore
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The site of America's first Thanksgiving is up for debate, notably where Virginia is concerned. (Aside: where there are matters of national origin or first American families, Virginia will always concern itself.) Clearly, the universally agreed-upon venue for the first Thanksgiving remains Plymouth, Massachusetts. The famously friendly, plum-and-pumpkin, good cheer feast of deer, fish and clams amongst English colonists, Mass. Gov. Wm. Bradford with neighborhood Wampanoag Indians and their chief Massasoit is the model on which all modern Thanksgiving gatherings are re-imagined. Of course, as oft happens, Virginia says they did it first, if not with far less of that good cheer. Initializing the holiday with a much more boring and somber Thanksgiving, the Old Dominion holds firm to its claim, via Berkeley Plantation in 1619. Specious, but technically arguable, Berkeley's riparian shores along the James River ripple with questionable authenticity.

December 4, 1619, one year prior to the legendary Plymouth Rock, Mayflower landing, Captain John Woodleaf and a few dozen English settlers landed some twenty miles shy of Jamestowne Island, at Berkeley Hundred: an 8,000-acre land grant of the Virginia Company of London awarded to Sir William Throckmorton, Sir George Yeardley, George Thorpe, Richard Berkeley and John Smyth in 1618. After ten weeks at sea, and upon landing on Virginia soil, naturally, Captain Woodleaf and his men, the legend goes, dropped to their knees and Woodleaf thanked God then and there in an impromptu, outdoor service for their safe arrival. (Blink, blink.) The official Charter of Berkeley Hundred states “We ordaine [sic] that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” So, yeah. It was a first Thanksgiving, of sorts.

Whatever your thoughts about all that, Berkeley Plantation (open for tours), built in 1726 and cup o' sugar-sharing distance to neighboring Westover Plantation (not open for tours, but stunning if you're lucky enough to garner a private showing, comme Moi), remains standing and is a spectacular monument to early-Georgian architecture. Of most historical importance, Berkeley is ancestral home to the Harrison Family. Here sits the home of both Declaration of Independence Signer and Virginia governor, Benjamin Harrison V, as well as two U.S. Presidents: William Henry Harrison (#9) and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison (#23). Notably, Wm. Henry also hits a Berkeley historical marker as the U.S. president with the shortest tenure: a mere thirty-two days. True to his "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too", frontiersman persona and fearing he might look like a weak leader, Harrison refused to don neither coat nor chapeau on his bitterly cold, winter inauguration day. (Trying to imagine President Harrison with an aide holding an umbrella over his head. Cannot.) One moth later, he died of pneumonia. Wear your coats, kids; but carry your own umbrellas. Queen Elizabeth II does.

Two-hundred and forty-four years after Woodleaf and his crew landed on James River shores, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, amidst the horror of the Civil War, proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, to be honoured the last Thursday of November. For the next seventy-five years, U.S. presidents followed suit. Then FDR came along and, naturally, made some changes.

President Roosevelt noted there were five Thursdays in November of 1939; he also noted, helped along with some nudging by retailers, this meant Thanksgiving would fall on the 30th, leaving a mere twenty-four shopping days to Christmas. A nation still recovering from The Great Depression needed a little more shopping therapy than that and, lo and behold, his Thanksgiving Proclamation set the penultimate Thursday of the month as Thanksgiving Day. Of course, as folks are wont to do, everybody bitched about this for reasons ranging from calendar reprinting to football game rescheduling to crying political foul, his Republican opponents even calling it Franksgiving. Since then, the day has stuck like Mom's cheesy potatoes to a serving spoon and we dare any sitting president to even think about changing it back to a pre-FDR date.

Regardless of where and when you like your Thanksgiving, North or South, penultimate or ultimate, whether you prefer Sam Adams or Southern Comfort, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Tennessee Williams, Patrick Leahy or Saxby Chambliss, Patriots or Cowboys, Americans can all agree 'tis a fabulous day to feast, imbibe, dress up, share good cheer and, most American of all, watch TV!

If you happen to be in Virginia, you'll find more than a few great venues for your own Thanksgiving, should you choose dining out, instead of going the home-cooking route: Alexandria (a.k.a. Alex, by the locals), Arlington, Georgetown, Williamsburg, Richmond, Ghent, Charlottesville. No matter where you dine, there shall be no debate about this; a traditional, 17th or 18thC.  tavern meal is always a wonderful idea! If you've read my Savannah of Williamsburg novels, you will recall many a tavern scene; if you've not read them ... for what are you waiting?! Enjoy here a sample menu from King's Arms Tavern, along picturesque Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg. Best book now at any of CW's historic taverns! Can't do it this time? Book early for next year and make it a family plan! (Fellow vegetarians, take note: stick with the peanut soup, cheese sippets, pumpkin pie and copious amounts of Cabernet and authentic, Wampanoag cappuccino. You'll do fine!)

A Thanksgiving Feast at Colonial Williamsburg's King's Arms Tavern

  • First Course
Peanut Soup
garnished with chopped peanuts and sippets (cheese crisps)
King’s Arms Seasonal Greens
with marinated tomatoes, carrots, raspberry vinaigrette
  • Second Course
Roasted Turkey
with savory herb dressing and giblet gravy
Bourbon-Honey Roasted Yams
with Cranberry-Orange Relish
Pan-Cooked Red Snapper
with finest crabmeat, butter-dill sauce and roasted garlic potatoes
Slow-roasted Prime Rib of Beef
seasoned with colonial spices, red wine reduction, horseradish, roasted garlic potatoes
  • Third Course
Pumpkin Pie with nutmeg cream
Chocolate Cake with raspberry sauce
Pecan Pie with caramel drizzle
Williamsburg Cinnamon Ice Cream
R. Charlton's American Heritage Coffee


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