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First Feasts

I have a long association with Canadian delicacies: I was once locked in a basement with a fellow South African and made to make poutine for a gathering of homesick Canadians. (In due course, I’ll claim Canadian citizenship on the grounds of this experience.) In fact, the only Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever eaten was a Canadian Thanksgiving meal at the Maple Leaf pub in London. Although held on the second Monday of October and seen as more of a harvest festival than a celebration of the founding of a nation, it’s fairly similar to the American Thanksgiving: it features turkey, pumpkin pie, and contact sport, although ice hockey rather than American football.

My Canadian friends were surprised to hear that South Africans don’t have a similar celebration, and given that this country has never lacked for nationalist movements, this does seem a strange omission. Particularly during the 1930s, Afrikaner culture brokers invented an Afrikaner history and tradition – transforming the Great Trek into a defining moment in Afrikaner history, for example. Jan van Riebeeck described the first formal dinner held by Dutch East India Company (DEIC) officials in the Cape in 1652, and it strikes me as odd that this ‘first feast’ was not turned into an annual event, celebrating the arrival of European settlement in South Africa. C. Louis Leipoldt, a key figure in Afrikaner cultural politics during the 1930s, was certainly interested in the history of Cape cookery, publishing on the subject and assembling a vast collection of sources on colonial cuisine. (The collection is now held by the South African Library in Cape Town.) I’ll devote more space to Afrikaner nationalism and South African food and cooking in the future, but I think that this is a good moment to begin thinking about the absence of a South African thanksgiving.

In October 1652, nearly six months after landing in Table Bay, the employees of the DEIC stationed at the Cape held a farewell dinner for a group of visiting Company officials, and Jan van Riebeeck, the Company’s first commander at the Cape was at pains to describe the menu:

Everything on the table was produced at the Cape: the fowls were reared here, new green peas, spinach, chervil, pot-herbs, asparagus (a finger’s thickness) and lettuce as hard as cabbage and weighing at least 1¼ lbs each.

Van Riebeek didn’t go on to explain how these ingredients were prepared, but it’s reasonable to assume that his cook did his best to replicate the cooking of the Netherlands. Considering that these European settlers had eaten – and liked – hippopotamus and had had some contact with the indigenous population, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to include some more obviously African ingredients in their feast. However, this feast was more than a meal: its purpose exceeded simply providing a group of DEIC employees with dinner.

Jeffrey Pilcher describes the first – and considerably more elaborate – feast held by the Spanish in Mexico in 1538: ‘the food was strictly European. …tables loaded with salads, hams, roasted kid, marinated partridge, stuffed chickens, quail pies, torta real, and for the servants, a whole roasted oxen stuffed with chicken, quail, and doves.’ The occasion commemorated a peace treaty signed between the kings of Spain and France, and the feast celebrated this union of European power: it was a manifestation of Europe’s wealth and, in the views of the conquistadores, cultural superiority.

Similarly, the inclusion of local ingredients or aspects of Khoikhoi cuisine would have been seen to undermine the authority of European settlement in the Cape. Indeed, Van Riebeeck referred frequently to the apparent Khoikhoi enthusiasm for bread, and suggested that bread could be used in exchange for cattle. As in colonial Mexico where the Spanish attempted to replace maize tortillas with wheat bread, for the Dutch in the Cape, bread represented civilised European values. It was, in their view, inevitable that the Khoikhoi should like it.

In contrast, American Thanksgiving features a combination of European and North American ingredients, with an emphasis on the latter. The feast is supposed to commemorate a dinner in 1621 held by the Pilgrims to thank a group of Native Americans who gave them pumpkins and turkeys to ward off starvation over the course of a harsh winter. This almost certainly never occurred: Thanksgiving was an invention of the nineteenth century. Annual thanksgiving, harvest, and homecoming feasts had been a feature of life in the northeastern parts of the United States since the seventeenth century. These local celebrations became the national Thanksgiving largely as a result of the campaigning efforts of the novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who had described a thanksgiving feast featuring Pilgrims and Native Americans in her novel Northwood (1827). From 1846 onwards, she used her wildly popular women’s magazines to popularise the idea of Thanksgiving as a ‘Great American Festival’. Realising its capacity to draw Americans together in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 'The First Thanksgiving, 1621' (1919)

Thanksgiving’s enduring popularity is partly due to the fact that it celebrates a rather nebulous ‘Americanness’: it can be a festival celebrating American power, family values, multiculturalism, and egalitarianism. Its evolving menu is reflective of this: alongside turkey and pumpkin pie are dishes which originate from the American south, like pecan pie and sweet potatoes with marshmallows (yes, really), and green bean casserole, which is the product of the dominance of processed food in American cooking. It can be all things to most people – it’s also been declared a day of national mourning by some Native American groups.

I think that Afrikaner nationalism’s failure to create a similar thanksgiving festival stems from a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that this was an exclusive nationalism which celebrated the triumph of Afrikaners over South Africa’s indigenous populations. A feast which included elements of African – or even Indian or Malay – cuisine would undermine this. Also, Afrikaner nationalism featured a strong streak of cultural insecurity, and tended to look to Europe for a guide to all things ‘civilised’. Nationalist cookery books provided recipes for vetkoek, boerewors, biltong and other delicacies, but within the context of a cuisine which grounded itself in European food traditions.

Further Reading

Texts quoted here:

Jeffrey M. Pilcher, ¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, vol. I, ed. H.B. Thom (Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, 1952).

Other sources:

Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Godfrey Hodgson, A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature, and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class, and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987), pp. 95-123.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Leipoldt’s Food and Wine, eds. T.S. Emslie and P.L. Murray (Cape Town: Stonewall Books, 2003).

Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Elizabeth Pleck, ‘The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 4 (Summer, 1999), pp. 773-789.

Andrew F. Smith, ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ Gastronomica, vol. 3, no. 4 (Autumn 2003), pp. 79-85.

Anne Blue Wills, ‘Pilgrims and Progress: How Magazines Made Thanksgiving,’ Church History, vol. 72, no. 1 (March 2003), pp. 138-158.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Janers #

    I loved jailing you in the basement so you could make me poutine! It was very tasty, as I remember…

    Have you heard of Turducken? It’s a chicken in a duck in a turkey, now often served either for American Thanksgiving or Christmas. So that would make the feast for the Mexican servants… what, Oxchicquaidov?

    March 5, 2011
    • Poutine remains a Canadian mystery. Chips are fine – but curds and gravy?

      Ha ha – I’ll remember Oxchicquaidov when I write about this again. Actually, animals stuffed with other animals has been popular for a very long time. There’s a medieval recipe which starts with a swan and ends with a woodcock.

      March 6, 2011
  2. >The feast is supposed to commemorate a dinner … to thank a group of Native Americans who gave them pumpkins and turkeys to ward off starvation over the course of a harsh winter. This almost certainly never occurred …

    Haha… Too bad. I like to think that this charitable exchange took place, somewhere in North America, in some form. Out of the 28 French who passed the first winter in Quebec city, in 1608 – 09, 20 died of disease due to the cold and poor diet. The remaining 8 must have wondered how the natives lived through the winter, at least.

    You seem to cast Thanksgiving mostly as a patriotic celebration, but in Quebec it really was (and still is) an act of giving thanks to God for the harvest. It was also, I assume, a chance for farmers and villagers to have a party after a long time of labour. This celebration of the harvest ought to exist in all cultures, no? I’m sure I read that the Ancient Egyptians also had celebrations giving thanks to the Nile for the harvest, etc. It is in this light that I would wonder why Thanksgiving doesn’t exist in South Africa. Perhaps you could call a farmer to ask him (or her) if he (or she) organises a party after the harvest season. 🙂

    March 6, 2011
    • That’s interesting about Quebec – I was wondering how it’s celebrated there. The focus of this piece is really about American Thanksgiving. What happens in Canada is, as you say, very different. We do have harvest festivals here – and particularly in the part of SA where I’m from – but, unlike in the US, they’ve not been dressed up into a kind of festival of national celebration. I’m still wondering why.

      March 7, 2011

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