Countless words have poured onto paper, advising people which wines to serve for the Thanksgiving celebration. I may as well add a few more. First off, I’m biased towards whites for this meal, an off-dry Gewurztraminer or Riesling or a sparkling wine, so that I don’t have to worry about poisoning my glass with cranberry sauce or a yam that will turn the wine sour. But there are legions of wine drinkers, who are biased toward red, no matter what the menu is. The prevailing wisdom for them is that California Pinot Noir or a light Zinfandel, or a fruity Euro red like Beaujolais or Barbera would complement the meal. Because the controversy continues to rage, I though we might consult the ancients, who created this holiday and its menu in the beginning. What did the Puritans drink? What did George Washington prefer? History weighs in with some surprising suggestions.
The historical record tells us that 90 Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribe and 41 Puritans met for three days in the fall of 1621 to celebrate a successful harvest after a previous winter and spring of misery for the settlers. Sixty-one of the original 102 Puritans, who disembarked from the Mayflower, had died from disease and deprivation. We know from William Bradford and Edward Winslow, who were both in attendance at the feast, that they ate cod and bass, waterfowl and wild turkey, venison, and corn.
What they drank is less clear. The English, including the Puritans, considered water dangerous even for bathing. The drink of choice was beer. Both the Anglican Church and the Puritans considered alcohol a gift from God. Drunkenness, on the other hand, was the work of the Devil. But whether these settlers packed enough beer in the Mayflower to sustain their community for an entire year is questionable. With the help of the native Wampanoags, the settlers grew both corn and barley, but the historical record does not indicate that they made beer from their small barley crop. We know that they praised the water on the site as being as good as beer or wine. Yet regardless of what they actually drank, the Puritans would have certainly wanted it to be beer.
Thanksgiving celebrations occurred spontaneously and sporadically from community to community, from state to state to commemorate particular events. For the first time in 1789, President George Washington designated Thursday, the 26th day of November as a national day of thanksgiving for the entire nation after the defeat of the British at Saratoga. But the occasion was still a one time event rather than a recurring yearly holiday.
We can guess what Washington probably drank to celebrate the occasion because we know what he served with meals at his 8000-acre Mount Vernon estate. His beverage staples were beer, Madeira wine, and Port. The food that he would have eaten with these beverages were fish, which he consumed regularly, and pork, mutton, goose, duck, turkey, roast beef, hominy, tripe, and ham, which he often served to his many guests. From his extensive gardens, he harvested potatoes, squash, carrots, cabbage, lettuce and other seasonal vegetables and herbs. Wine accompanied dessert at Mount Vernon and included ice cream, his favorite, and pies, tarts, fruits, nuts, and cheeses.
So there you go. While history dictates the Thanksgiving Day menu, consisting of foods that are native to the United States, it leaves us free to open any wine that we desire. But beer would be the most faithful to our past.