Pass The Grampus

Now that we're finished eating, this, from Curious Expeditions:
A Whale of a Meal
November 27th, 2008

Happy Turkey Day! This year, M and I are enjoying the holiday in Maine, not far from where the pilgrims would have had the “first Thanksgiving.” While we love the holiday mythos, as many know, the first Thanksgiving wasn’t really the first, it didn’t happen quite where we thought, when we thought, and they didn’t eat what we think they ate… In fact at the 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth they may have eaten something that would shock and revolt most Americans today.

Not far from us is a museum celebrating a tradition as fundamental to the fabric of New England as Thanksgiving; The Maine Maritime Museum. The museum has wide range of seafaring items, from figureheads, to model ships, to scrimshaw. Huge Ship WeathervaneIt also highlights a now long disappeared ocean occupation. It hasn’t been a part of Maine life for a century, but once, whaling was a way of life here.

Written in 1620 a year before Thanksgiving, the pilgrims had what they deemed “a first encounter.” It was actually two first encounters.” Walking down a cold Cape Cod beach they had their first encounter with the Cape Cod natives, and their first new country encounter with something they called a “Grampus.”

“As we drew near to the shore we espied some ten or twelve Indians very busy about a black thing.” Upon seeing the pilgrims the natives ran off into the woods leaving the Grampus which they had been cutting “into long rands or pieces, about an ell long and two handfull broad.”

The black thing, or Grampus as the Pilgrims called it, was in fact a beached long-finned pilot whale (globicephala melaena), one which the natives were almost assuredly preparing for eating, possibly preserving it through smoking it. A year later, when the Wampanoag Indians and the pilgrims dined together at the 1621 Thanksgiving, the meal consisted of berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, plums, “turkey” (in those days turkey meant all fowl so it may have been duck, goose, pheasant, turkey or all of the above) and fishes such as “cod and bass and other fish.” Other fish? Grampus perhaps?

Did the pilgrims eat whale? Perhaps, perhaps not. The celebration went on for three days, and much of the food was provided by the native king Massasoit and his people, it seems possible they would have enjoyed some smoked pilot whale. Since whale meat tastes rather like beef, (or like the venison it is known they ate at the celebration) the pilgrims might have eaten whale, enjoyed it, and never even known what it was. Today whale meat would most certainly not be welcome on most, if any, Thanksgiving tables, but at the “first” Thanksgiving it may well have been whale, not turkey they were giving thanks for.

For an excellent account of the history of eating whale in America read Nancy Shoemakers excellent article “Whale Meat in American History”, for pictures of the Maine Maritime Museum check our flickr set here. If you are interested in reading more about whaling, you might want to check out an article I recently wrote about Moby Dick, spermaceti, supernova, the history of physics, and the connection that ties them all together, which can be read online at the HTML times.

Happy Thanksgiving from Curious Expeditions!

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