In This Episode
This week is the 400th anniversary of what America knows as Thanksgiving. Join us as food historian Linda Civitello takes us through how the traditional meal has evolved through the decades and what items we love to indulge in owe their existence to indigenous people. We explore the good, the bad and ugly that comes along with this beloved holiday. From the food racism to legacy of the indigenous people and everything in between!
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Marie Cox, and welcome to With Friends Like These. As you know, a lot of what Americans believe about Thanksgiving is a myth. But there was a real event that historians agree was the first Thanksgiving, and it happened 400 years ago this week. To mark this occasion, we’re going to dine out on the truth about the holiday with food historian Linda Civitello. She’s the author of the award winning books “Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking” and “Cuisine and Culture: a History of Food and People”. Stay tuned to learn more about the colonization of food, what is on your table that you can actually trace back to that first gathering, and how the South waged its own war on Thanksgiving?
Linda Civitello: Linda, welcome to the show.
Linda Civitello: Thank you so much. This is so wonderful to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s wonderful to have you. This is the time of year where we reckon with the collision that happened, and I’m going to say Old versus New World, because I think that’s the origin of our Thanksgiving is Old versus New World. But when I said that earlier, you corrected me to eastern and western world, which is a better descriptor. But that’s what I think of this upcoming holiday, as, yes, it’s Thanksgiving, and I’m a fan of giving thanks. But for me and mine, it’s also become this chance to kind of reckon with what brought us Thanksgiving, right? And this holiday, the myth of it at least, the Thanksgiving holiday, the myth of it is really centered around food, you know? Like that’s what we’re giving thanks for. And the question I want to get to first is not so much about Thanksgiving specifically, but about this collision of worlds in the realm of food. Can you talk just a little bit about those significant exchanges, sort of in cuisine and food that happened when the eastern and western cultures met? I know there’s a lot. Want to start, I don’t know. Where do you want to start? You want to start with New England?
Linda Civitello: Well, we’ve got the plants and animals that were, might as well have been from Mars when European people came here, some of these plants and animals. Some of them they’d already been introduced to because the British came here in the 1600s and we’re more than 100 years after the Columbian exchange. So some of those foods had already made it over to Europe and then came back. But the collision was just physically between the groups of people, between the races. The first Thanksgiving, yes, the mythology sprang up in the 19th century, along with that George Washington and the cherry tree, I cannot tell a lie. When America became sure enough that England was not going to come and take us over again after the War of 1812 when we defeated them for a second time. It was like the second revolution. And then we could reclaim, we could start to define ourselves. And we did that with this mythology and the food plays into it. American abundance in food has always played into this. I was just looking at some 19th century, mid-19th century Thanksgiving menus and the food, its turkey, geese, venison, duck, lobsters, oysters, lamb, pork, veal, beef—everything is on a table. And you know that much of it was wild caught, including salmon and other kinds of fish. Always there, apple pie, pumpkin pie. But that first Thanksgiving, the mythology is not just about the food. It’s about how everybody got along and the native people were so happy to help the Americans, well the British. And this absolutely denies the reality, which nuber one is that people were able to settle in New England because preceding pandemics—and pandemics play a huge part of history too—had really destroyed huge numbers of the Native populations so that there was land available. The other story we see repeatedly with Europeans coming is they come upon food. Columbus did this. The British did this. They come upon food. They come upon these caches of food. These stashes where the Native people in their traditions have somehow preserved by drying or some other method of food, and stashed it there to get themselves and their people through the winter, through famine, through tough times. And the Europeans come upon this food and just eat it.
Ana Marie Cox: That seems like a good metaphor for the entire project
Linda Civitello: Entitled. You know, well everybody was starving. It was difficult. People who grew up in towns and villages in Europe we’re not used to starvation. And the Native peoples, it’s in the culture where the children, especially the girls, they learn songs, they learn prayers to deal with famine, with times of famine, because they know that this can happen and that there are lean times when the weather is not good. So city people, town people, not so much used to dealing with nature.
Ana Marie Cox: I love that you’ve pointed out that the mythology of the Americas has to do with its literal abundance of eating, like what you can eat. And it plays into the mythology of Thanksgiving as well because at least as I learned that, you know, years and years ago, one of the things that we were supposed to celebrate is the fact that our foods exchanged, right, like that we were eating the food that the Indians, like we made, we —I’m talking about, I’m taking on the colonizer role, not happy about it, but it is my legacy, right?—the pilgrims that made what they could and the indigenous people made what they could and the table with set with a mix of food from both sides.
Linda Civitello: Yeah, no. And your aunt Matilda didn’t show up either, you know, with the crocheted doily. We have one firsthand account of the 1621—and by the way, this is the 400th anniversary of that first Thanksgiving, so it’s weighted—we have one account, and all we know is that wildfowl were there and five dear. So the wildfowl could easily have been turkeys. There were wild turkeys everywhere, and turkey was something that the Europeans would have been familiar with. It’s one of the foods from the Americas that did catch on right away because it’s a big bird. And not as big as now. You look at recipes from one hundred years ago and they say, take a big turkey, eight or nine pounds. We don’t have anything that small now. That’s like a, that’s like a baby, it’s like a baby. But our turkey’s now are 20, 15, 18, 20, 23—giant turkeys with enormous breasts raised to have huge amounts of white meat. So that first Thanksgiving native tribes are saying, well, they maybe didn’t show up, I know that they have their oral traditions, maybe the native people didn’t show up to help out, or maybe they weren’t invited, but maybe because the British were out shooting things in the woods and the Native people were afraid they were being attacked, so they rushed over. We, don’t know. We don’t know. The pictures from that first Thanksgiving are missing. But there were Thanksgivings after that and the Thanksgivings were always religious. The settlers in New England in the 1620s and the 1630s gave thanks for killing the native people.
Ana Marie Cox: It is, I mean, ultimately, the Thanksgiving that we officially celebrate is a celebration of colonization. Right? I mean, right down to the food is what I am kind of thinking. Right? We colonized their food.
Linda Civitello: The food is American, but the techniques are British. And we see this in the first cookbook written in the United States in 196 in Hartford, Connecticut, by Amelia Simmons. And she says, I’m an American orphan, which was a metaphor for the whole country. And she’s got a recipe here to stuff and roast a turkey. And the stuffing has wheat bread, fat, eggs, thyme, marjoram, pepper, salt. Some add wine. Fill the bird, hang it up. You know, do this, serve with cranberry sauce. And potatoes, parsley done with potatoes, or boil and mash potatoes, moisten them with butter and herbs, pepper, salt. So there’s your dinner. And when she says serve with cranberry sauce, she doesn’t give a recipe for cranberry sauce, which means that people in New England have been eating it for so long and so often that didn’t need to tell anybody what it was or how to make it. Everybody just knew.
Ana Marie Cox: My ignorance is showing. Cranberries are a western hemisphere food.
Linda Civitello: Cranberries are native to New England.
Ana Marie Cox: They’re just native to New England.
Linda Civitello: Well, no, that means they’re in Michigan, they’re in bogs and Jersey, but they’re native to the northern part of the United States, cranberries and blueberries. This is why in New England, a lot of the houses were painted kind of a dull purple or a dull cranberry because they would mix these fruits with sour milk. They had to put something in the wood so that it wouldn’t absorb rainwater. They had to close the pores, so that’s why those houses are that color. It’s what they had.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m really interested in this American foods and British techniques. What are some other things on the menu that are like that?
Linda Civitello: Well, the turkey native to the Americas, potatoes, but potatoes are native to Peru so that was Spanish territory so potatoes went from South America to Europe, South America to Spain. Then traveled up into northern Europe, then came back to North America with the Scotch Irish. Many foods had circuitous routes because England and Spain were enemies. So things from, because you think, oh, the potatoes were right there. No. The potatoes had to go transcontinental twice. So mashed potatoes, corn, corn was the staple grain of the Native people, and wheat did not grow well in New England so corn was, became a staple and the bread was made from corn and rye. Because rye did grow in New England. And they called corn, they called it injun. So it was rye and injun, it was a half rye, half corn loaf. It was very dense because rye doesn’t have much gluten, corn doesn’t have any gluten. And I made a loaf of rye and corn, and you can knead that thing till the cows come home and it’s never getting shiny and elastic like wheat. Wheat which just goes, oh man, gluten, I’m there. It’s like, yeah—
Ana Marie Cox: I’m really interested in this idea of colonizing the food and how that shows up. So we were doing different things to these staples than the Indians did? We were preparing them differently. Were we thinking about them differently, raising them differently? What did that look like?
Linda Civitello: You take new foods. I mean, this is for immigrants, everybody, even just anybody who goes to a new place, you look at something and it’s like, I don’t know what that is. How does that fit with my cosmology? You know, my culinary cosmology, what I already know. So corn was ground. Dried corn was ground and turned into flour. That the British knew. They knew flour. So Native American people don’t have cornbread. They don’t, that’s not how they used corn. You know, you can use it in a porridge, you can use it in stew as a thickener, but corn bread as we know it is American. We added sugar, which originally the technology was developed in India in the 8th century BCE, then brought over in Europe by the Arab, during the Arab agricultural revolution, and then finally it made it over here and the Caribbean became [unclear]. So corn bread and sugar, corn bread with baking powder—baking powder is an American invention.
Ana Marie Cox: An American invention?
Linda Civitello: Yes, that’s my—
Ana Marie Cox: I know you’re into baking powder,.
Linda Civitello: Baking powder, Baking Powder Wars. It absolutely changed cooking in the world because you could all of a sudden leaven things that you could never leaven before, like corn.
Ana Marie Cox: I worry we might get too far on a tangent, but like, how do you invent baking powder?
Linda Civitello: First, there has to be a need, and in the 19th century in the United States there were two things going on. One was dyspepsia, which was the catchall for all of those things you see in the Pepto-Bismol commercial, just any kind of upset stomach thing. And it was thought to come from the bread. Bread has tremendous, wheat bread has tremendous religious significance and resonance in Western civilization. So in New England, where wheat did not grow well, you kept what wheat you had for the sacrament. You kept it for Sunday. Or maybe for company. You mixed it a little with corn, but you ate that corn and rye loaf the rest of the time so you could have that for the religion. So you need, one of the other things that happened is that America’s standard of living has always been higher than Europe’s. Europe had a tradition going back to the Middle Ages of guilds of men who were bakers and very often that was generational and familial or, but it came from the medieval lord of the manor has a mill, lord of the manor has an oven. You don’t have a mill. You don’t have an oven. You have to go in bake. You have to pay to do that. Or then when there is commercial baking with urbanization, you go to the corner and buy your bread. We get to America. Everything is spread out. We don’t have male guilds. We don’t have professional bakers. Women have to do the baking in the home. And we’re talking about people who in the early settlements are eating a pound of bread per person per day. It’s not, you know, would you like some bread with that? It’s like you like something with that bread?
Ana Marie Cox: I’m just thinking, of course of modern, the way people think about bread today. Like, wow, like they must have had severe carb face, you know? Like pound of bread. That’s a lot of bread.
Linda Civitello: It is. And baking it is a tremendous undertaking. Baking is a strenuous physical activity. In France, the male bakers didn’t knead with their hands. The bread dough was a big, long trough and the male bakers kneaded it with their feet. They jumped up and down on the way Italians would stomp on wine. And also, go ahead.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, I was going to say the women baking this bread must have had real guns, you know, like getting a workout, like you said, with the corn and rye.
Linda Civitello: A lot of times the teenage girls in the household, this was the responsibility of the girls was because they had to learn how to do it for when they became wives. But also they were young and they were strong. And you’d see girls from the neighborhood, if your girls were grown and had their own families or something, but the local girls—it became kind of communal. It’s like Monday, I’m baking bread, and Suzanna is coming over from next door and then Tuesday she can go and help somebody else.
Ana Marie Cox: And I can’t quite believe that this sentences is going to come out of my mouth, but to get it back to the baking powder [laughs] it’s just such a specific thing to invent. That’s why I’m interested. It’s just, it’s, you know, like a lot of foods, like a lot of things in our lives, you don’t think of it as an invention, right? You think of it as just like, oh, it’s there, it’s just the thing that’s there.
Linda Civitello: That’s what I thought. And I thought I was writing a history of breakfast, and I said, this is a massive topic. Breakfast is a massive topic. Let me start with something small like baking powder because it’s in everything. It’s in the pancakes, it’s in the muffins, it’s in the waffles, it’s in the quick bread. It’s in absolutely everything. And then I found thousands and thousands of pages and court cases going up to the United States Supreme Court, and just this saga going on for generations.
Ana Marie Cox: I feel like we might get really far away from Thanksgiving, but baking powder is Thanksgiving too, right? It’s Thanksgiving sort of? No? OK.
Linda Civitello: Not so much. It’s the one time, it’s in the cornbread. It’s in the cornbread.
Ana Marie Cox: All right.
Linda Civitello: Some people put baking powder in pie crust, but it’s a chemical leavenor, and it’s one of the first chemicals that was, or the first chemical that was deliberately added to food.
Ana Marie Cox: That sounds so fascinating, but I feel like we should circle back to Thanksgiving.
Linda Civitello: OK.
Linda Civitello: I wanted to talk a little about the things we can think Native people for.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, right. Yeah, the actual, not mythology.
Linda Civitello: No, the real, the real contributions that Native Americans have made to American culture and cultures throughout the world even. Things that, like you said, we take for granted. And the first, being a New England girl myself, I would like to thank Native Americans for developing the technology to create Maple syrup. It’s not instinctive when you look at a tree to go, oh, I think I’ll just stick something in the tree and see what comes out, or how much can I take without killing the tree, or what time of year should I do this? This is extremely complicated and sophisticated technology, and you have to take that sap, you have to know what time of year, you have to know how much, you have to know where in the tree so that you don’t damage the tree, and then you have to boil it down, you to reduce it. And the Native Americans did this without having metal pots. Think about this. How do you boil something or get it to boil and reduce it without a metal pot, without something you can put over the fire? And the way you do that, is you cooking animal skins and you heat stones up in the fire. You have to have a constant—
Ana Marie Cox: You put it in the skin.
Linda Civitello: You put it in and that will generate heat and make the liquid boil and reduce. But it is a constant, difficult, time-consuming, extremely labor intensive, and then they would store the maple syrup in giant moose vats of moose that the women had prepared and sewed up, and so that, you don’t obviously don’t want anything to leak. And when the Europeans came, the early Europeans acknowledged the role that the Native Americans played and then later Europeans around the 18th century have [unclear] saying, well, we showed them, they didn’t know anything, because again, what you have here, the collision is between people who think they’re civilized and people that they think are savage or heathen, they aren’t Christians, so that’s going to really determine what they think of these people. So later, people in the 18th century will come in and say, no, we taught the Native people how to make Maple syrup. We did that. And you look at it, and one of the ways that good historians track the origins of things is through linguistics, is etymology. So you look at that go, OK, so you’re from Europe and you created the technology for Maple syrup, so how come in the Native language that, like, you know, ten words for maple syrup and you have one? You know? And then we see things, and I love this that some people reported they said that the maple sugar, which is further processing this down to crystal, was used for gifts. They poured it into, the Native people poured it into little molds. And one Europeans said they are shaped, these little molds are shaped like bear paws, flowers, stars, small animals and other figures. He said, just like our gingerbread bakers at fairs. And look at this and here are these Native people creating beauty with food, planning on giving gifts, maybe treats for their children and gifts in their community, just like we do. But it was so, so difficult for the Europeans to acknowledge this and see the humanity, just the common humanity in this.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m glad you brought up Maple syrup and Maple sugar, because I think a lot of us who know anything about, you know, the genocide that was committed by Eastern Hemisphere colonists, we think of cotton as being the crop that did a lot of damage. But sugar is another reason—
Linda Civitello: Oh. Oh.
Ana Marie Cox: That things got as ugly as it did, right? And I guess there is a bit, I’m interested in the maple syrup thing because there was sugar, you know, in this hemisphere, right? It just wasn’t the same—
Linda Civitello: The sugar came from the Caribbean. It came from the sugar plantations.
Ana Marie Cox: Like there’s maple, so there’s sweetness. There’s something that’s sugar. There’s something that can be thought of as sugar. But no, it wasn’t, it wasn’t a commodity in the same way that actual sugar, granulated sugar became.
Linda Civitello: No, no. Because by then granulated white sugar from, and again—it’s white, which is important—white sugar from the Caribbean was familiar to everyone in Europe, and they continued that trade and also the molasses trade. Later, they had molasses as part of that triangle trade from, molasses up from the Caribbean to New England, turned into rum, rum taken to Africa for slaves, slaves taken to the Caribbean again. We think and I think most Americans think that the majority of the slaves that came out of Africa came to the American South. A small percentage came to the American. The majority went to the Caribbean. Where then they took the healthiest, strongest young people, young men, mostly ages 16 to 20, physical prime of life as enslaved people to work on sugar plantations. Their life expectancy there was four years, because it was cheaper to throw them away, to let these people die and buy new people than it was to feed them decently or treat them like humans instead of working them to death. And what they were fed was cod. It came from Massachusetts, from New England. That sacred cod hanging in the State House in Massachusetts. Yes, it made fortunes. It created the codfish aristocracy. And the grade A, the best dried cod went to European countries with a tradition of debt. Italy: baccala. Spain: bacalao. Portugal: bacalao. All of those words are connected, and that’s something Americans, that Italians brought back to New England with them because that’s, baccala, dried codfish is one of the things you have in the Feast of the Seven Fish is on. It’s Christmas Eve and I remember saying to my mother, ma, what are we doing with these dried cod fish that we like, it’s a week, you’ve got to soak it, drain it, drain it, soak it, water and milk, soak it. I said, there’s fresh cod everywhere here, what are you doing with this!? But that’s how ferocious traditions are. And immigrants bring this also to America with Thanksgiving, because you don’t ever just show up and go, OK, oh, that’s your festive meal I’m in. I’m in for the whole thing. It’s like, no, we make this for our holidays, so I’m going to add this, I’ll add this this soup, I’ll add this bread, this pie, I’ll add this other meat, I’ll add something else. So that, for example, Italian Americans, Thanksgiving started with a full-on festive Italian meal, which was soup, Italian bread, lasagna, sometimes sausage meatballs—I mean, huge meal. Then the American meal with all the pies and desserts, and then the Italian ending, which was roasted chestnuts. Sometimes you might have a stuffed artichoke. I’m still digesting Thanksgiving from 1978.
Ana Marie Cox: I was going to say I was, I dated an Italian guy from Jersey.
Linda Civitello: Sorry.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s OK. But that was my first experience with the Italian Christmas, and I never, my mind was blown, that basically you eat all day and it is like a first you have an Italian dinner with all of the stuff that you would have like at Italian restaurant and then you have your American dinner. And it’s, I also went to my first Italian East Coast wedding with that person. Boy, we can have another show.
Linda Civitello: Cookies! We don’t care for cake.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh my god, so many cookies.
Linda Civitello: Mountains of cookies.
Ana Marie Cox: And also there is this big buffet like during the, like before the wedding. There is a a buffet—not even buffet, that’s not fair to call it a buffet—there was like a open feeding with like there is a sushi station and a pasta station.
Linda Civitello: Because you get there, a good 20 30 minutes before the wedding and somebody could die from starvation in the meantime.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s right. And then you have the wedding, and then you have another meal, and then you have another meal after that, too. It’s amazing. So, so I do love that, that the Italian approaches is just to add. We don’t replace, we just add, right?
Linda Civitello: We it’s this is our food. We eat this. We will eat your food and acknowledge that we are here. But this is our food. All the immigrant groups do this. They just, people do this. Some people just throw out the turkey and bring in their own. You know, it’s just, with people from the Caribbean and people from every which where. In the African-American community, macaroni and cheese is the must have at Thanksgiving.
Ana Marie Cox: I suppose we can leave behind the, not first, but at least the mythology of the first Thanksgiving, if you like. I am curious, though, just to get back to the cultural collision. So there is this colonization of food, which is the taking of these indigenous plants and animals and preparing them how it was familiar to us. I’m wondering if there was anything that, you know, that the colonists adopted from indigenous culture pretty wholesale? Like, was there anything that was like, oh, well, maybe maple sugar candy. But was there anything that people were like, oh, that looks delicious, and we’re just going to cook it the way that you cook it, and it seems awesome?
Linda Civitello: No.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s seems really racist, actually.
Linda Civitello: Yeah. The minute that wheat, that they could grow wheat in the north, the corn recipes fell off. Popcorn. Cranberries, but cranberries in with sugar and oranges and things, from like Europeans were used to. One of the places where we took chocolate, the chocolate technology. That’s from the Mayans and the Aztecs. So we can thank them for that, for developing the cacao pods and chocolate. The barbecue is a technique, a pit barbecue with open flame, we think originated in the Caribbean. And there, freeze drying, the Peruvians do that, in the Altiplano. The Inca developed that technology where during the day it was hot and dry and at night it got cold. So—
Ana Marie Cox: Jerky.
Linda Civitello: Jerky, char-ki is a Quechua word, from Quechua. And I think my favorite, though, is flash freezing. This started an entire industry in the United States when a guy named Clarence Birdseye and—yeah, that’s his real name—was the naturalist employed by the United States government, and he was up in Canada and he was in different places working at flora and fauna. And he realized that fish that were frozen in the winter tasted better than fish that were frozen in the spring or the fall, or meats or anything they had there tasted better. And then he looked at how the Native people were doing this and they were using the wind in the cold to flash freeze their food and Birdseye thought this was great. And he came back to the United States and he spent about seven bucks and bought a fan and a little metal plate, you know, some things to try to replicate this. This was in the 1920s. And he did develop a cold technology and he patented. This technology has several patents. But the problem was even if he could figure out how to replicate this, who was going to buy it? Where would they store it? You didn’t have freezers in your home. You had an ice box. Electricity was just coming into kitchens in the 1920s. And then still, you had that little freezer compartment at the top if you had an electric refrigerator, and you could fit like an ice cube tray and then you’d have to defrost it, and it was misery. So that didn’t catch on. General Foods thought enough of this though that they bought him out. And after World War Two, we really got into what had food historians call the cold chain, which is an uninterrupted supply of cold from point of origin to point of consumption. Which means your processing facility has to be able to be extremely cold. You have to have storage warehouses that are extremely cold. Transportation trucks, railroad cars. We first developed that in the 1880s for meat, for beef, because it was cheaper to ship beef dressed, which is killed, you know in sides or big pieces, then on the hoof because you have to feed on the hoof, you have to water on the hoof, you have to muck out the cars. It’s a mess. Just refrigerate, but cold chain, and you needed freezers. And in the 1950s you had lots of people in America, millions of people, buying a giant, giant chest freezer.
Ana Marie Cox: Yep, yep.
Linda Civitello: And that’s—
Ana Marie Cox: I have one of those. It’s great,
Linda Civitello: Really? Yeah, because I mean, it really took off. One of the first things you get to put in that freezer is TV dinner, which is Turkey. It’s the Thanksgiving dinner. Got little compartments: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, maybe sweet potatoes or little cranberry sauce or something. Or turkey pot pie?
Ana Marie Cox: Was that really one of the first frozen dinners? Was it basically replication of Thanksgiving?
Linda Civitello: Absolutely. That was the first dinner, was the frozen turkey dinner. And then, when they called it TV dinner, it took off like crazy and then chicken pot pie—
Ana Marie Cox: going to bring things around full circle and point out that Tucker Carlson’s family money comes from the Swanson family. So wow! White supremacy just really embedded in that vicious circle.
Linda Civitello: I didn’t know that. Yeah, white supremacy is connected to Thanksgiving in the South. They did not want to celebrate Thanksgiving after the Civil War because when it became a national holiday, Thanksgiving became a national holiday 1863 when Lincoln declared it. And in 1864, everybody in the North decided that it was going to make a beautiful Thanksgiving for the troops. And they spent millions of dollars. Women cooked, they baked, they made gingerbread, they made cookies, they made pies, they made pickles and sauerkraut and whole turkeys, and shipping companies in the north shipped it for free and there was a huge—they wrote notes, and everybody was, the soldiers’ morale was tremendously helped by this. The South decided they were going to outdo the north. They said the north doesn’t know anything about hospitality. We’re the south. We’re going to have the biggest feast ever on New Year’s Day. Table’s going to be 20 miles long—twenty, sorry, tables are going to be 20-feet long—and the north and the south never pull it off. The south is never able to pull that off and we got a lot of desertions. So Thanksgiving made a big difference there. Southerners would not celebrate it because they view Thanksgiving as a northern holiday. They knew that preachers had been preaching abolition from the pulpit. The South started celebrating Thanksgiving when reconstruction ended, the army got pulled out of the South and they could revert back to white supremacy. And in Alabama for a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1875, the governor—and I’m quoting—he issued the proclamation quote, “to honor the replacement of a reconstruction constitution by a new document that restricted Black participation in state government.” We got the same thing in Georgia when white supremacists returned to power in the state and there were no longer any Black politicians or lawmakers. And that’s when the South started celebrating Thanksgiving again.
Ana Marie Cox: It really is a holiday that is just through and through embedded with white supremacy. It is a celebration in many ways, at least historically—I keep on doing that caveat—at least historically it’s a celebration of white supremacy, because I confess I have a sentimental attachment to the holiday. I imagine a lot of Americans do. Knowing everything you know about Thanksgiving, how do you feel about Thanksgiving?
Linda Civitello: Well, as a historian, you’d just never be able to wake up in the morning, knowing what you know about the atrocities that had happened and continue to happen—except that in there is still this acknowledgment that the Native people did help us survive, that there is good in the world and there is good food, and what we can do is try to remedy or acknowledge what happened. And I think what you’re doing on the show is de-mythologizing this. And this is a time when America is self-scrutinizing and some people can’t handle it. They want the white supremacy fairy tale and they don’t want to hear the truth, which is the genocide, the “let’s give the Native people these blankets from people who’ve had smallpox” you know, they don’t want to hear that. And the letters about that smallpox are at Amherst College because it was Lord Jeffrey Amherst, and he doesn’t acknowledge that he did it, but he writes to people about how it should be done and could be done. So . . .
Linda Civitello: I think, you know, as a maybe it’s a human thing, I’m not sure if it’s an American thing or a white American thing—I think it’s really present with white Americans, though, is a desire to have our stories be pretty simple, you know, that the Thanksgiving is either good or bad, right? Like that it’s either something we celebrate or something that we shun. And I think what’s really interesting about trying to de-mythologize this holiday is to somehow be able to hold in your head both the awful tragedy of it and some of the things you’re talking about. It’s not like one makes up for the other, by the way. That’s not what I’m saying at all, but that there can be two ways to look at something and both can be true.
Linda Civitello: Well, when America works, there’s nothing better. There is nothing better. No, there is nothing better than us at our best. And I think the perfect example of this is World War Two. When we went into countries that we had flattened—we went into Germany, we went into Japan, and the way victors had always behaved before that was to grind the people who had lost further down. And we went in and helped them recover. The Japanese were expecting us to go in and kill them all. People committed suicide in Japan.
Ana Marie Cox: I mean, they had some reason to believe that, by the way, like—
Linda Civitello: Because that was how they had been treating people where they had gone.
Ana Marie Cox: And also we did drop nuclear bombs on cities, that, where most of the people.
Linda Civitello: This was before.
Ana Marie Cox: Oh, OK.
Linda Civitello: This was before. When they didn’t know what was going on. But yes, we saw, and American abundance is important, and Americans help the world through this abundance. And we can continue. But we also need to acknowledge that there is disparity, and not just feel good about ourselves once a year or twice a year at thanksgiving and Christmas because we donate some cans of food to a food pantry. You know, it’s more than that, and it needs more long-haul, and the food injustices and food apartheid need to be addressed, you know? And Thanksgiving was one of the things that FDR talked about and there’s that famous Norman Rockwell magazine cover “Freedom from Want” as one of America’s four freedoms. Freedom from want. We need to, and I think the country is in a process of redistribution now, or at least awareness where a lot of workers said, I can’t do this anymore at this rate or at this pay scale or with these parameters. We need to rethink this.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. I think that’s really important to bring in the idea that there is a thread in our thinking of Thanksgiving that that sometimes shows up as, oh, this is the time of year we give some cards to the food pantry. But it’s actually more radical than that. It is this idea that Thanksgiving can be a time to think of how everyone deserves abundance, that there is no such thing as having to earn abundance so much as it can be accessible, or it should be accessible to everyone. That’s a pretty radical thought, you know? It is!
Linda Civitello: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, and we’ll see this Thanksgiving what happens with the supply lines. Because food is crucial to governments because it’s been connected with revolutions. When there isn’t food, hungry people are angry people, hungry, angry people will kill you before they will die, especially if their children are starving. But that was one of the things that was astounding, I mean, through all of this is that the supply lines have held in America.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, basically. I mean, I think everyone’s had trouble with a little bit of everything. But yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s been incredibly fortunate. Well, we have managed to follow the Thanksgiving thread a lot of different places. Is there anything you want to talk about before we wrap up?
Linda Civitello: I do, thank you. This first American cookbook, which was published in Connecticut, has a lot of food firsts, including the stuffing in the turkey and served with cranberry. Some of that came from British cookbooks. British were familiar with stuffing birds and things. But it also has the first recipes for Pumpkin Pie as we know it. There are recipes for squash pies and things, but pumpkin pie, sweetened pumpkin pie with eggs in it, what we’re used to as pumpkin pie. These are the first two recipes. And it’s called American Cookery by Amelia Simmons published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796, the same year the State House was built in Hartford. This cookbook also has the first recipes for cookies. It is the first time the word cookies appears in print. And these are American. In other countries, in England they have biscuits or, you know, which means twice cooked or biscotti, which means twice-cooked. But we have cookies and these are American, so it’s, and many corn recipes. And they didn’t have cornbread, but we had Indian slapjacks that were cooked on a griddle or that rye and Injun bread. Indian pudding, hasty pudding. So the use of the corn. And then many recipes for apple pie. But yeah, three recipes for pumpkin and then cranberry sauce, which, like I said, we already knew was in existence because everybody knew how to make it. So Connecticut has a lot of food firsts.
Ana Marie Cox: Do you have a, maybe you can end on literally a sweet note. Do you have a favorite recipe for pumpkin pie?
Linda Civitello: Yes, it’s my pumpkin amaretto cheesecake, with a ginger snap crust.
Ana Marie Cox: Where could people find that if they wanted to make it? Oh, it’s yours.
Linda Civitello: I published the recipe. Yes it’s my recipe. There are recipes out there, but you know, you don’t need to make a graham cracker crust. Any kind of cookie can make a crust. Little, crush the cookies up in a food processor, little bit of butter, little bit of sugar. And then pumpkins, amaretto, cheesecake—there you go.
Ana Marie Cox: I just, I love Thanksgiving food. I am just a huge fan of basically the whole menu. I often make a pumpkin chocolate cheesecake that’s a swirl in it that I like a lot.
Linda Civitello: Marbled?
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, marbled pumpkin chocolate cheesecake.
Linda Civitello: I could just eat stuffing and gravy.
Ana Marie Cox: I also like stuffing. Honestly, it really is hard to choose. And I don’t know why it’s such like a, it’s my favorite holiday, and I used to say it was just the food, but I think I’m just going to go back to that idea that I think it’s actually one of our more complicated holidays. You know, everything’s problematic, right? But to me, Thanksgiving is the best and the worst of us in one, one thought, right? Like, it’s this horrible, bloody history. And it’s gratitude, which is the most beautiful sentiment that there is. So, I don’t know, there’s always something to think about, and always something to mull.
Linda Civitello: We’re Americans. We can do better.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah.
Linda Civitello: You know? We have the means. Once we get the will, we can do better.
Ana Marie Cox: Linda, thank you for coming on. This has been fascinating.
Linda Civitello: Thank you. I appreciate it, and I hope everybody manages to enjoy Thanksgiving. I hope. That’s my goal.
Ana Marie Cox: I think everyone will give it their best shot. Thanks again.
Linda Civitello: Thank you. Bye-Bye.
Ana Marie Cox: We’re grateful to Linda Civitello for sitting down with us. Be sure to pick up her books “Baking Powder Wars: the Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking” and “Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People”.
This show is a product of Crooked Media. Leslie Martin is our producer. Patrick Antonetti is our audio editor. This podcast was recorded on the ancestral lands of, among others, the Coachuiltecan, Comanche, Jumano, Lipan Apache, and Tonkawas Peoples. Take care of yourselves.