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Repast is Prologue 

The enduring legacy of one tasty turkey dinner.

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There's something about that meal. We can still taste it almost 400 years later. But why?

Sometime in the fall of 1621, on a windswept clearing above the sea far from home, a small group of shell-shocked survivors honored their meager harvest. It was the only good thing to happen that year, as half the people they traveled to the New World with in that stinking ship were dead. Only by the kindness of strangers did they live at all. Natives showed these Pilgrims how to plant, what to hunt, where to fish. If ever there was a moment to give thanks, that was it.

Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony is one of those stories we just keep telling. It was first revived during the Revolutionary War as a timely reminder that a small band of separatists can reach the promised land. Abe Lincoln made it an annual observance in the bleakest moment of the Civil War, as America needed a vision of coexistence “for the general good of the Colony,” as the Mayflower Compact put it.

But there’s been a lot of myth, too. Those pious few built America on their unshakable religion, we have learned. True, but the colony was also a business (as detailed in the new history, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World), and it only survived on trade. These refugees couldn’t quite escape the world they fled. In fact, they embraced it, and within the century, New England was one of the richest societies in the world.

That meal, we’re also taught, was a moment of peace and possibility, as natives and Pilgrims found their common humanity at that table. Again true, but everyone had ulterior motives, too — Indians wanted a leg up on competing tribes, and Pilgrims, at the mercy of their new neighbors, were triangulating a survival strategy. But for that day, it was an idyll, a view of what was possible on the edge of a vast, new continent. It was only a moment, however; within a generation, Plymouth Plantation was under attack by Indians. The colonists beat back the uprising and unleashed Manifest Destiny, in all its brutality.

It’s only human nature to remember the good times from a generally painful relationship.

But it was still a crucial moment.

We celebrate Thanksgiving exactly because of the promise of that snapshot in time. Some of it was squandered, history proves. But much has been delivered in the way of life we Americans have built.

Mythic or not, it was a uniquely American moment, filled with humility, triumph, cooperation and possibility. It remains a glimpse of the new world we all want to discover. And for that, we give thanks.

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