First Thanksgivings: French Food, Cocido and Mullet

There’s a strong probability that this Thursday you’ll sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. That dinner will likely involve turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie. This, as we all know, is a tribute to the first Thanksgiving, the one that took place between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 Plymouth. The History Channel, which certainly sounds like a reputable enough source, what with shows such as Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and Mountain Men, “debunks” this as the first Thanksgiving meal. It tells us that the first meal probably didn’t include turkey but a waterfowl such as a few geese or duck, and gooseberries, raspberries, and New England mussels served with curds. 

The History Channel, as well as most of America, is mistaken.

The first Thanksgiving – the true first Thanksgiving – took place long before that. Remember, the colonists didn’t invent the idea of Thanksgiving. It’s actually a Catholic ceremony and comes with its own mass, a Mass of Thanksgiving.

Who: French captain Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere brought 300 settlers to a bluff just outside of present-day Jacksonville in 1564. On June 29, they officially founded Fort Caroline. The local Timucuans gave the French grains and fruit, and on June 30, Laudonniere held a feast of Thanksgiving. About the feast he wrote, “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please His Grace to continue His accustomed goodness toward us.”

Of course, later that year, due to hunger, mutiny, attacks from local tribes and, not the least of all, the ever-territorial Spanish,  Fort Caroline fell into Spanish control. Some scholars discount this as the first Thanksgiving because the settlement didn’t last.

When: But by the fall of 1565, North America saw its second Thanksgiving – also in Florida. On September 8, 1565, don Pedro de Melendez de Aviles celebrated another Thanksgiving.

What: Of the two Thanksgivings, historians have found records of the menu, and it’s a far cry from turkey and cranberries. Research suggests the second Thanksgiving in the New World had a menu that included venison, corn, beans, squash, oysters, clams and fruit. The Timucuans likely provided quail, hare, chicken, tortillas, corn, squash and legumes and the Spanish probably brought something called cocido, which is a pork stew with garbanzos and onions, biscuits, olive oil and red wine. There were probably some mullet, a few ducks and also some turkeys – just not the store-bought ones.

Where: Today, you can visit the sites of the first two Thanksgivings. The one in Jacksonsville – the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the French, took place on the grounds of Fort Caroline National Memorial (12713 Fort Caroline Road in Jacksonville). A short trail through the forest leads you to Fort Caroline. Once you’re back in your car, head south on A1A to St. Augustine where, just past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not and just before the yellow fever cemetery, you’ll find a turnoff for Mission Nombre de Dios, where a giant steel cross marks the approximate site of the second Thanksgiving.

Why: Only in Florida do we have the first – and second – Thanksgiving sites. To stand where our country’s first immigrants stood helps us understand the enormity of the things for which they were thankful.

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