First Thanksgiving Dinner In U.S. Territory Given By Spaniard Pedro Mendez de Aviles

A view of old Spanish houses with iron work and wooden balconies on St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1960.
A view of old Spanish houses with iron work and wooden balconies on St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1960. (Photo by Dick Smith/Getty Images)

As I have written elsewhere (VOXXI, November 19, 2012), Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles (1519-1574), from Asturias, was the founder of the city of St. Agustine, La Florida, in 1565, with a group of soldiers, colonists and priests. On September 8, 1565, official Thanksgiving was given. A mass was celebrated and a feast followed. This day can be considered as the first official Thanksgiving Day in U.S. territory, as Dr. Michael Gannon, University of Florida, assures us.

Thanksgiving was, and supposedly is, a religious act and, as we all know, religion and gastronomy go hand in hand. People rejoice spiritually, offer tokens of gratitude to the Almighty, acknowledge His help and guidance, and then relax and make merry while refreshing and nourishing their mortal bodies. In other words: Thanksgiving is followed by eating and drinking. This is, as I explained, a universal tradition predating the discovery of America, practiced by different cultures and different religions. Almost the same everywhere, except the food partaken at these celebrations of thanks.

The North-American tradition of devouring the fowl known as turkey, is very fitting because this bird is indigenous of the Americas and was introduced into Europe by the Spaniards. It seems that over 45 million farm-bred turkeys are served for Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S. on the fourth Thursday of November of each year. The bird belongs to the New World. The British, being the way they are, thought that this animal came from Turkey, thus its name in English.

For centuries turkey made up the traditional main Christmas course throughout Europe, until the affluent society cast it out as unfit for elegant culinary tastes.

The first Thanksgiving in U.S. territory?

After the Mass, offered as an act of thanksgiving by don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, what was eaten at the feast that followed, in what can be considered the first such celebration in U.S. territory?

Dr. Marian Horvat (“The Oldest City and the First Thanksgiving”) tells us that the feast was shared by the Spaniards and the Timucuan Indians who brought edibles such as venison, corn, beans, squash, oysters, clams, fruit, and, of course, plenty of turkeys.

Quail, hare, rabbit, chicken were probably also supplied by the Timucuan Indians, who most certainly brought tortillas, frijoles, corn, squash and legumes as well as fruits.

What did Spaniards contribute to the bread-breaking get-together? Probably cocido, a stew made with pork, garbanzo beans, chickpeas, and onions, along with biscuits, olive oil and red wine. Surely, salted pork and cheese spread was also present. Let us remember that Spaniards introduced into the newly discovered territories: horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens. Condiments were also brought over such as olive oil, cinnamon, parsley, coriander, oregano and black pepper, and also nuts and grains such as almonds, rice, wheat and barley. Gout was widespread in Europe at that time because of the excessive intake of meats and wines, forever present at festivities. Charles I and Phillip II both suffered from this crippling illness.

A mixture of European and American ingredients, the best of both worlds, coincided on U.S. soil at the first Thanksgiving dinner on September 8, 1565, and which centuries later would turn into what today can be termed Hispanic cuisine.

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Hispanic Contributions