Penny Colman is all about truth. In fact, you could call her a myth buster! Yeah, that's really an appropriate name for her. If you check out the books on her website, you'll see that she tries to demystify Corpses, Coffins and Crypts, as well as provide a perspective on Toilets, Bathtubs, Sinks and Sewers: A History of the Bathroom, and many other fascinating subjects in history. The book that I want to focus on today is her book, Thanksgiving: The True Story.
Colman covers 8 different topics related to Thanksgiving: Competing Claims for the title of First Thanksgiving, Two Very Old Traditions, Sarah Josepha-Hale's Campaign for a Day of National Thanksgiving, The "Pilgrim and Indian" Story, Gatherings of family and friends, Activities, Foods that the Pilgrims probably did have, The three main themes surrounding Thanksgiving.
Whew! I didn't think I could get all that out! That's a lot of stuff to cover, which is what makes this book a reference every family should have! As far as I am concerned, this book is worth it for the first chapter alone. She starts off with a discussion of competing claims, with several taking place before that noted 1621 date. But what's really nice about the presentation is that she starts with table chronicling, "When, Where, What and Nature of Claim," and each one is numbered. Then, she presents a map with each number to indicate where in the U.S. that claim is took place, which is very well done. Then the discussion begins. She takes you all over the map to discover these claims. Black and white photos make for pleasing visuals throughout the book.
Did they really have turkey on that first Thanksgiving? I'm not spoiling the answer! You'll have to read the book to find out!!
Now that I've made you think about Thanksgiving leftovers that might still be in your fridge, let's get to the interview with Penny!
Q. Do you have any favorite Thanksgiving movie or program that you enjoy watching every year? If more than one, tell us all of them!
A. No, I don’t have a favorite Thanksgiving movie or program. Truth is, I don’t watch television and rarely go to the movies. Your question, however, piqued my curiosity so I goggled “Thanksgiving Movies.” Would you believe--67,600 results! Of the five lists I checked, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), “Alice’s Restaurant” (1969), “Pieces of April” (2003), “Home for the Holidays” (1995), and “Ice Storm” (1997), made four lists; “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), were on three; “Dutch” (1991), on two, “Giant” (1956), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973), on one. Have I seen any of them? Only one—“Giant,” when my mother, a fan of Edna Ferber, who wrote the novel, Giant, took me to see it when it first came out many, many years ago.
Q. What, if any, Thanksgiving traditions (decorating, gathering with friends and family for a meal, etc.) do you have?
A. Over the ever-changing years, I have had various Thanksgiving traditions. There were the years I lived with my husband and three close-in-age-children in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, far away from our East coast friends and families. For Thanksgiving, our tradition was to attend a community pot-luck feast, which included tables of turkeys and every conceivable version of appetizers, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, Jell-O salads, breads and rolls, and desserts. In my book, Thanksgiving: The True Story, I described how I learned about regional differences when I encountered dish after dish of okra—raw, marinated, or breaded and fried-- an unfamiliar vegetable to me and my family. After the meal, we played a rousing game of any-age-or-ability-can-play softball.
Since relocating to New Jersey thirty years ago, my traditions have included a stretch of years when my second cousin from Argentina and a family from India, who always brought samosas, came for Thanksgiving. Last year, however, for a variety of reasons my partner and I had a guestless Thanksgiving. Still, we set our traditional Thanksgiving table—linen table cloth and napkins, china dishes, silverware, and crystal goblets around a Thanksgiving centerpiece and cooked our traditionally large turkey (we love left-overs), stuffing, pecan and pumpkin pies. But instead of the traditional vegetable dishes--broccoli with cheese sauce, green bean casserole; sweet potato casserole, mashed white potatoes; ginger carrots—we cooked turnips and spinach. Then we went for a long walk at a nature center where we happened upon a rafter of wild turkeys! Before the day ended, we had phone conversations or email exchanges with our friends and family.
As for other traditions: I always carve the turkey, a skill I learned from my father; I always do something outside regardless of the weather, and I give thanks (see question #6).
Q. What was your most memorable Thanksgiving and why?
A. Thinking back over my Thanksgivings, many have been memorable but for different reasons; a few were sad like the one following my brother’s death, others unique, including my first year in college when I decided to stay at school, got a job waiting on tables, and found a worm in the salad I was about to give to the dean. Then there was the year my sister got married in her backyard on Thanksgiving Day. One of my most memorable (perhaps because the turkey and stuffing are my signature contributions) was when one of my sons set the oven on broil to toast his breakfast bagel and neither he nor I thought to reset it to bake, thus the turkey got thoroughly broiled before the smoke alerted me to the problem.
Q. Which do you choose: white or dark turkey, white potatoes or yams, green beans or corn, break rolls or crescent rolls?
A. Without fail, I choose: white meat, yams, green beans, and crescent rolls.
Q. What, in your opinion, was the oddest food served at a Thanksgiving dinner you’ve attended?
A. The oddest food served at a Thanksgiving dinner I attended was the year
one of my brothers-in-law served steaks! The only turkeys on the table were miniature chocolate ones wrapped in shiny foil.
Q. Tell us 3 things you are thankful for this year, please.
A. Giving thanks on Thanksgiving is, for me, a continuation of giving thanks everyday for the people near and dear to me--my family and friends. I also give thanks for all the people I don’t know who are working for peace, and for the protection of the natural world, the end of violence against women and girls, and the eradication of poverty. I am also feeling thankful that this was the year I finished writing my forthcoming book, Stirring Up The World: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Biography of a Powerful Friendship.
Q. Just for fun, if you could be among any of the original members of that first Thanksgiving, who would it be, the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag (Native Americans)? Why?
A. First, a point of clarification: my research for Thanksgiving: The True Story led me to discover 12 competing claims for the “First” Thanksgiving—2 in Texas, 2 in Florida, 1 in Maine, 2 in Virginia, and 5 in Massachusetts, including the event that you’re referring to, which occurred in 1621 and has become the iconic story for the origins of Thanksgivings. (There’s a two-page table with these claims in my book.)
Now, for your question: I would want to be a Wampanoag because they already knew how to plant and hunt and build and thrive.
Q. Considering that feast, what do you think that first harvest celebration meal would be?
A. According to the only firsthand report of the event, the colonists killed many “fowl,” which could have included ducks, geese, ruffed grouse, bobwhite, wild turkeys, also heath hens and passenger pigeons, both of which are now extinct. The Wampanoag “killed five deer,” which meant there was venison. Other foods were probably cod, eel, shellfish, squash, and pudding made from corn, nuts and dried berries.
Q. Why true histories rather than fiction. What’s the draw?
A. For me, the question is: “Why fiction rather than true histories?” But to answer your question: the draw is--I love the intensity, immediacy, drama, intrigue, and relevance of true history. Through my research and writing, I enrich and inform my life by getting to know real people who lived real lives.
Q. If you could describe your writing with a word or phrase, what would it be? What do you want readers to take with them when they’ve finished reading your story?
A. A word would be—Stimulating.
I’d like readers to finish reading and feel/think that their time was well-spent. That they thought new thoughts, met inspiring role models, learn interesting information, gained insights and saw intriguing pictures. I do my own picture research and take photographs. My book Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial is rich in visual images, including a headstone with the epitaph, “I told you I was sick.” [too funny!]
Q. Have you ever written Thanksgiving into your other stories? Why or Why not?
A. No, because it wasn’t relevant.
Q. Who decides what person you write about, you or your muse. What kind of influence do you have over your choices, or is the muse always the one basting the turkey.
A. I decide who I write about, unless the story dictates someone I would not have chosen, such as Sarah Josepha Hale who warranted a whole chapter in Thanksgiving: The True Story because of her relentless campaign to establish a “Day of National Thanksgiving.”
Q. Since your books are about real-life people, why did you choose the ones you wrote about? Was it simply to immortalize them or was there more to it than that? What kind of research did you have to do for these books?
A. I am drawn to people who have persevered and found ways to live a meaningful, productive, and adventurous life, such as the women I wrote about in Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference that I dedicated to my granddaughter Sophie. I write to put forth a terrific true story, a task that requires massive amounts of research in libraries, archives, historic sites, cemeteries, on the Internet. I also conduct interviews, sort though visual material, etc. etc.
Q. Of all of the stories you’ve written, what person did you have the most fun writing about and why?
A. The people demand too much of me to qualify as fun, but the road trips I take to do research are great fun.
Q. If you had the opportunity to meet just one of the people you’ve written about in real life, who would it be and why? Is there anyone you’ve written about that you would never want to meet under any circumstances? Who is it and why wouldn’t you want to meet them?
A. The last part of your question first—no, there isn’t anyone because writing is too big an investment of time and energy for me to use it on someone I would never want to meet under any circumstances.
As for who I’d like to meet, that would be all of them—Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothea Dix, and the women workers I wrote about in Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, etc., but since you asked for “just one,” I settled on Frances Perkins, about whom I wrote in my biography, A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins.
As Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, Frances Perkins was the first woman in the United States cabinet and the architect of some of the most far-reaching and important reforms and social legislation ever enacted in America, including unemployment compensation, child labor laws, the forty-hour workweek, workplace safety, and the establishment of Social Security. An engaging storyteller, she had a great sense of humor and lived a full and productive life until she died at the age of eighty-five. “You just can’t be afraid,” she once said, “if you’re going to accomplish anything.”
You can hear me talk about Frances Perkins and hear excerpts from her speeches on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” There is a link to it at www.pennycolman.com