When I think about Thanksgiving, I think about family, food, and firsts.
The first person in my family to eat a Thanksgiving feast was William Brewster, my 13th great-grandfather. He was also one of the first people to celebrate this tradition at all.
After coming over on the Mayflower with his wife and children, Brewster settled into Plymouth Colony. As the senior elder and the religious leader of the group, he probably blessed this first meal himself.
That first feast was quite different from what I ate at my first Thanksgiving in 1980. He most likely ate wildfowl, corn (perhaps as porridge), eel, and venison.
In the nearly 400 years since then, our food system has completely changed. My first supper on this holiday consisted of pureed sweet potato that came out of a glass baby-food jar.
While the first feast relied only on what the colonists and their neighbors could raise themselves, we now regularly eat foods that aren’t grown anywhere in our region — or even in the United States.
The original colonists had few options for food. There were no grocery stores. There was just a local economy that consisted of what you and your neighbors could grow and hunt.
You probably associate Thanksgiving with a “traditional meal” of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. In reality, your spread should look different based on where you live.
I live in Catonsville, Maryland. If my neighbors and I followed the tradition of the first feast, we’d go to our local farmers’ market and cook holiday fare with those ingredients. Thanksgiving tables around here shouldn’t mirror my family’s meal in Pelham, New Hampshire.
Better yet, we could apply those same lessons to every meal. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last two years.
After moving to Catonsville, I joined the Catonsville Cooperative Market, a food cooperative launched in 2008 for the residents of our Baltimore suburb and other nearby communities. We purchase goods from over 25 local farmers and artisans and have a pick up site at a local church.
We share a common vision of one day opening a storefront market to sell locally sourced and natural products at affordable prices. We hope that it will also serve as a community center — not just a grocery store, but a place to learn skills and share information.
Aside from bringing people together, our co-op is helping build a new economy. Multiple studies show that locally owned independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain competitors.
This strengthens local communities, creates local jobs, and builds local wealth. And co-ops can also reconnect people to their regional food system, ensuring that they’re eating foods that are in season and locally grown.
It’s been 394 years since my 13th great-grandfather celebrated his first Thanksgiving.
This year, when I return to my family’s table in New Hampshire, I’m making sure it’s full of local and seasonal foods. Because that’s one first worth repeating.