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Diplomats gather for traditional Thanksgiving at Blair House
Diplomatic Pouch / December 4, 2014

By Larry Luxner

Some 200 people, including 60 ambassadors and their families, recently converged on Blair House for a traditional dinner of roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce and pumpkin-pie milkshakes — along with a briefing from America’s protocol chief on the meaning of Thanksgiving.

The Nov. 20 event at the presidential guest house was arranged by the State Department, with input from the Smithsonian Institute. Chef Jerome Grant of the National Museum of the American Indian served up a variety of Native American delicacies, while members of the University of Maryland football team — the Terrapins — taught diplomats and their kids the basics of the game.

“I hope you’ve had an opportunity to sample some of this delicious food, explore the interesting exhibits and maybe even throw around a football outside,” said Peter A. Selfridge, chief of the Protocol Office of the United States, before explaining why the fourth Thursday in November is a special day for Americans.

“For those of you who are unfamiliar with this holiday, the very first Thanksgiving took place in 1621, in what is now known as Plymouth, Mass. In the fall of that year, the English colonists — who we refer to as pilgrims — and the native Wampanoag people shared a harvest feast, celebrated for three days and sealed a peace treaty that would last for over 50 years,” Selfridge said.

“At the core of this story is one simple, fundamental truth: food has the exceptional ability to unite and bring people together. No matter where you are from, food holds a special significance for every culture and community on Earth, which is why we are so excited to share with you our food and our unique Thanksgiving traditions.”

Since that first Thanksgiving dinner 393 years ago, he said, “the holiday has come to symbolize a time for gratitude for those around us, and to demonstrate America’s openness to newcomers.”

On that note, Selfridge extended a warm welcome to a group of young basketball players from Sri Lanka and the Maldives attending the event through the Sports United Exchange Program of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

“Giving back to the community through volunteerism is a unique way that we as Americans like to celebrate this holiday,” he said, thanking DC Central Kitchen for providing meals to the hungry, as well as Washington Jesuit Academy for “making sure all these backpacks get to needy families so they can have a fresh Thanksgiving meal of their own.”

Although on Selfridge’s thank-you list was Walmart for donating 100 backpacks and all the food inside them; Chef Spike Mendelson, a member of the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership program, and his restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery, for donating the pumpkin-pie milkshakes and other desserts, and lead sponsor Coca-Cola, “for helping make this event possible.”

Dan Gifford, manager of the National Museum of American History’s advisory committee, spoke next.

“This holiday is about welcoming waves of immigrants who became part of the tradition,” he said. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity and lesson for looking where we’ve been and where we’re going. That’s why we love to study holidays and thanksgiving in particular.

In 1789, following the Revolutionary War, President George Washington proclaimed the nation’s first official observance of Thanksgiving. In 1863 — in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made it an annual holiday to be celebrated nationwide, and in 1939, on the verge of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Thanksgiving’s occurrence on the fourth Thursday of each year.

Yet Susan Evans, the museum’s program director, said several misconceptions surrounding the festive holiday persist to this day.

“Sorry to burst the bubble, but at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, there was no turkey,” she told her diplomatic audience. “Mainly what we know was that Gov. William Bradford [the first governor of Plymouth Colony] asked people to bring wild fowl, and the Wampanoag Indians brought deer. Turkeys were really hard to catch, and even if you could catch them, they were pretty tough to eat. But we know they probably had fish.”

Evans added that “cranberries are native to New England, so it’s possible they would have been at the first Thanksgiving. They’re pretty tart, but if the pilgrims did eat them, they would probably have been sweetened with maple syrup.”

With the advent of Ocean Spray cranberries in 1912, cranberry sauce eventually became a traditional part of the meal. So did green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.

“Today the vast majority of pumpkins grown in America are put into pumpkin pie filling or pumpkin puree,” said Evans. “While our Thanksgiving table today may not have mutton or fish on it, instead we still have the traditions of the past, and can keep innovating for the future.”

But some innovations should be avoided at all costs, advised Selfridge.

“One year, my college roommate was training for a marathon,” the protocol chief said. “He took all the Thanksgiving leftovers and blended it into a shake. Don’t do that.”

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