PLYMOUTH -- A couple of years ago, my family decided to do a different sort of Thanksgiving. We headed down to this harbor town, where Thanksgiving was born, just in time to see the Pilgrim Progress march. Fifty-one citizens, representing the 51 survivors from that first harsh winter of 1620-21, marched down the main street, past Plymouth Rock, to a service of thanks at Burial Hill. They were dressed in black, walking solemnly to the beat of a drummer. Men carried muskets; some women carried babies and toddlers.
Across the street was the other side of the story: Native Americans had set up a tent in an attempt to set the historical record straight. "We didn't come to break bread with the settlers," said one man, selling native crafts. "We came to kill them." Some elderly tourists turned away, apparently finding this version distasteful.
It was a learning experience for us, and certainly for our children, to see that our Thanksgiving Day is a Day of Mourning for others.
We headed next to Plimoth Plantation, arriving in time for the 11 a.m. seating of our Victorian feast. Why Victorian? Well, the authentic Thanksgiving meal would include the 17th-century menu of "cheate bread, a sallet of herbs, sliced turkey, stewed pompion, and Indian pudding," eaten with the fingers. No, thanks. This meal is actually offered at the plantation, but not on Thanksgiving.
Knowing the modern American appetite, the plantation instead offers a Victorian dinner, since it was President Lincoln who revived the flagging idea of a national Thanksgiving Day. We stepped into the cafeteria, and into a different century. Tables were set with linen, china, and crystal, a posy, and souvenir program at each place. The year was 1863, the colonies were at war with one another, and Lincoln was in the White House.
On each table was a relish tray, fall harvest fruits and assorted nuts, as well as pressed cider. Ladies and gentlemen, representing Plymouth settlers, were in period garb: frock coats and long gowns, top hats and bonnets. Grace was offered, we all sang "We Gather Together," and appetizers were served (split pea soup and scalloped oysters that year). The meal is family-style, meaning you sit with strangers and pass the platters. Our fellow diners included a family from New Jersey and a couple from South Carolina who, although it was the Civil War, didn't mind breaking bread together.
In between courses, the "historical interpreters" entertained with hymns and toasts -- to the troops, to Lincoln -- and stopped by tables to chat with guests. Like the Buckingham Palace guards, they will not step out of character, no matter how you try. (Me: "Wasn't Lincoln's assassination awful?" Victorian lady: "Are ye threatening our president?" Me: "Oh, no, not at all." Her, to my son: "No more hard cider for your mother!")
The actors are convincing, with their historical knowledge and 19th-century New England dialect and vocabulary. One "merchant" told our table about a fellow abolitionist who had been smuggling slaves to the Caribbean and freeing them. He was caught in Florida and put in jail, where his Northern cousins bought his way out. I asked a "lady" about her life, and she responded that she was an active member of the Temperance Society. "I'm not in favor of that," I responded. "And prithee, why not?" she asked. "I like my margaritas," I said. She feigned a puzzled look: "I know not what you mean."
My daughter asked a "retired sea captain" stopping at our table about women's right to vote. He, too, looked confused. "Why would they want that?" he asked. "The same reason you do," she said. But he would not take the bait, instead shaking his head sadly.
The main meal consisted of 10 dishes, such as roast turkey with giblet gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, butternut squash, turnips, beets, creamed onions, cider cake, and ginger bread. It's decent, hearty food, followed by a musical serenade and various proclamations, and then dessert: Indian pudding, pumpkin and apple pies.
After dinner, we strolled through the 1627 Pilgrim Village and Hobbamock's Wampanoag Homesite. Plimoth Plantation is a living museum devoted to historical accuracy, and it presents both sides of the story. It was a cold but sunny day, and we enjoyed seeing the Pilgrims at work over their fireplaces and in their gardens -- you might even glimpse Governor Bradford and his wife -- and the Indians in their wetus (wigwams), working on crafts, or a dugout canoe or with native crops.
When it was time to leave, we grabbed one last glass of cider and headed home, to a house with no dishes to wash, but alas, no leftover turkey.
Three dining options are available at Plimoth Plantation on Thanksgiving Day. The Victorian Feast, with three seatings, is $70.95 for adults and $52.95 for children, which includes museum admission. The Thanksgiving Day Buffet has four seatings and is $50.95 for adults and $34.95 for children, including museum admission. (Museum members pay a reduced rate). Reservations are required: 800-262-9356. Many seatings are already full. The all-day courtyard celebration consists of snacks such as chowder and sandwiches; no reservations necessary.
Bella English's column on family travel appears the second Sunday of the month.