I spent the day after Thanksgiving at what is arguably the Thanksgiving capital of the country, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, where a now-famous group of Protestant separatists set up their fateful and relatively short-lived settlement. The open air museum is a fascinating day trip, and, much to the delight of my children, the pilgrim re-enactors stay firmly in character—their accents, persona, and roles carefully maintained. Alongside the folks in doublet and hose, bonnets and iconic hats, there are modern museum personnel who can expound on objects and events from a 21st century perspective. Thus, in a small wattle-and-daub hut dubbed America’s first test kitchen, we watched a luxuriantly bearded young curator (as bewhiskered as any of his 17th century colleagues) cooking up something Pilgrim-style. When my son asked what was in the pot, he produced a brace of plucked, stringy bird-flesh he identified as quail. My sons and their cousins quailed and fled. Apparently, this glimpse of poultry freed from the usual plastic wrap and looking recognizably avian was a little too real.
Fun as it is, there’s a strange and sometimes unsettling combination of the real, the recreated, and the mythologized. Even though Plimoth Plantation does not shy away from the abundant horrors of life on and off the Mayflower (the dimensions of which are shockingly small), and does not represent the feast with which most Americans commemorate “the first Thanksgiving” as historically accurate, to visit this place is to see the power of narrative. Even the model Wampanoag encampment, which is staffed not by actors, but by members of the Wampanoag tribe, is a sharp reminder that history is written by the victors. Indeed, the long-serving Governor William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation is a literary record crafted with– if not myth-making—then certainly posterity in mind. That book turned out to play a surprisingly pivotal role in our national origin story. For more on this, there’s piece here by the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick, and an American Experience documentary airing on PBS.
I came away from my visit with a renewed interest in the political and social context of the day (the 17th century was rife religious warfare), my own replica of a 17th century disease ( I’m coughing, but I’m pretty sure I don’t actually have consumption), and most of all, a renewed respect for the profound power of storytelling.