Canadians families are celebrating Thanksgiving today, October 8, 2012. Turkey is often on the menu as is pumpkin pie and other foods associated with the harvest. Most people have a holiday from work and gather with family members to eat a traditional dinner.
Thanksgiving is a tradition that dates back to the earliest days that Europeans came to North America. RCI’s Lynn Desjardins spoke to food writer and historian Anita Stewart to learn more.
Starvation and freezing to death were two major risks facing the first Europeans who came to North America. When the English Pilgrims landed on the east coast of what is now the United States they were helped extensively by native Chief Massasoit. The two groups organized a three-day feast in 1621 to give thanks for the harvest.
faced death too after arriving in what is now the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia and were protected and maintained by Chief Membertou. No official Thanksgiving feast occurred in the way it did in the New England, but Samuel de Champlain did establish an Order of Good Cheer
in 1604 which included weekly feasts and was designed to keep up the strength and good cheer of colonists trying to get through a hard winter.
There developed a British tradition of Thanksgiving
. In 1759, King George II named October 25 a day of Thanksgiving for the Success of His Majesty’s Arms, particularly the Conquest of the French Colonies. Later in 1856 Queen Victoria chose June 4th to celebrate Britain’s victory in the Crimean War.
Later, Canada’s celebration swung back and forth in time between October and early December. It sometimes coincided with American Thanksgiving which comes on the last Thursday of November. But that was late to spend any time outdoors and the government finally scheduled it for mid-October starting in 1899.
Natives offered many traditional foods to the colonists. These may have included venison (deer), wild leeks, oysters, eel, goose, cornbread, watercress, berries and plums. They were skilled farmers. In fact, nine of the foods they grew are on a master list of 30 that are consumed around the world. They include potatoes, corn and beans. Turkeys were domesticated as early as 700 AD for use as guard animals. Some of the birds were transported back to Spain in the 1500s by explorer Hernando Cortes. They then came back with the Pilgrims to New England in 1629.
Roast turkey is a main staple of Thanksgiving along with gravy made of pan juices, although not every Canadian family will dine on that tonight. Some prefer ham. But if it’s a turkey it will often be stuffed with a mixture of rice or bread, spices, perhaps mushrooms. There will be a side dish of cranberry sauce made from a sour berry grown in marshy areas of North America. There are side dishes of mashed potatoes and perhaps a salad. Dessert is traditionally a pumpkin pie.
That said, Canada is multicultural society, and many families will have entirely different menus related to their countries of origin. But what they have in common is the desire to give thanks for the food and life they have. Those who are less fortunate may benefit from turkey dinners provided for the homeless across Canada. And there are those who will not celebrate at all.
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