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Four early-American Thanksgivings

Think you know what Thanksgiving tastes like? Does it involve sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green beans and onion rings? Think again.
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Think you know what Thanksgiving tastes like? Does it involve sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green beans and onion rings? Think again.

Sure, we all think we know Thanksgiving. It’s one of America’s favorite holidays. It is the time of year when most families come together to enjoy far too much food and share a day filled with conversation and football. But there are other ways to do Thanksgiving - ways that involve travel, costumes, history and no cooking whatsoever. To get a different taste of Thanksgiving, plan a visit to one of these four wonderful restored early-American venues, where you can see how the holiday evolved over the centuries — from the original Pilgrim feast to the Industrial Revolution.

for Web contacts and telephone numbers for these early-American villages.

Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Plimoth Plantation has the grandmother of all Thanksgiving feasts. This is where it all started way back in 1621 (though Berkeley Plantation, on the banks of the James River in Virginia, claims an earlier celebration in 1619). At Plimoth Plantation, the Thanksgiving meal experience can take you right back to the days of the Pilgrims — or as close as you can come these days.

Before or after the Thanksgiving meal, visitors can tour Plimoth Plantation itself. This is a truly impressive living-history museum, a professionally mounted interactive re-creation of the Pilgrim colony that grew up in Massachusetts after the landing of the Mayflower in 1620. The interpretive program re-creates life as it was in 1627. Staff members, many of whom assume the roles of documented colonists, demonstrate how the basics of living were carried out. They milk goats, thatch roofs and gossip about Goody Eaton’s cow getting loose in the cornfield. They even speak in an early-American dialect and feign confusion when asked cheeky questions like “What’s your favorite TV show?”

The museum offers a series of Thanksgiving meal opportunities; in all, it will serve more than 3,000 turkeys. The meals come in all shapes and sizes; you just need to decide what you want to pay and whether to have a formal meal, eat with your fingers, or load up at a buffet.

The “1627 Harvest Dinner” with the Pilgrims takes place every weekend during November with feasts scheduled on November 5, 12, 19, 20, 23, 25 and 26. This feast, laid out on a groaning board, includes “Mussels Seeth’d with Parsley and Beer” and “A Sweet Pudding of Native Corn.” It also comes with Pilgrim etiquette lessons and live entertainment.

On Friday after Thanksgiving, visitors have a chance to “Eat Like a Pilgrim.” Leave your forks behind and feast on porridge, turkey, stewed pumpkin and Indian pudding.

On Thanksgiving Day, dine in the Visitor Center courtyard (you don’t need a reservation) or stroll around the plantation grounds and enjoy a-la-carte offerings throughout the day. Or try the buffet, which offers all you can eat with plenty of traditional Thanksgiving foods like turkey, cornbread stuffing, butternut squash and creamed onions.

The “Victorian Thanksgiving Dinner,” is the formal event. This 19th-century meal, accompanied by period singers, offers harvest fruits, escalloped oysters, native turkey, gingerbread, Indian pudding and plenty of pie. The Victorian Dinner is sold out for this year but it’s a great holiday event to plan for next year. Plimoth Plantation begins taking reservations for its Thanksgiving events each year on June 1, so mark your calendar.

Each of these meals includes entrance to Plimoth Plantation and to the Mayflower II, a full-scale reproduction of a 17th-century vessel, where visitors can learn about the Pilgrims’ 1620 ocean-crossing voyage.

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Williamsburg was one of the most important towns in early-American history, the prosperous capital of the Virginia colony from 1699-1780. It was here that Patrick Henry delivered fiery speeches and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were frequently in residence. Today Colonial Williamsburg operates as a living museum, with more than 500 restored or reconstructed buildings and 100 gardens within the 300-acre historic town. Because the town was wealthy and well built, it is an attractive destination for travelers.

Williamsburg does not host official Thanksgiving events because the custom of thanksgiving feasting had died out by the 18th century, and it would be another 125 years before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national holiday (he did that in 1863). But the worthy taverns and inns in the town do prepare sumptuous feasts that include all the traditional fixings.

Stop by the restored King’s Arms Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern or the Regency Dining Room at the renovated Williamsburg Inn, where period-dressed staff serve traditional holiday meals on Thanksgiving Day. The lovely town and historic setting are as impressive as the Thanksgiving meal.

Mount Vernon, Virginia

Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. lies Mount Vernon, the stately home of George Washington, surrounded by 500 acres of its impressive farmland and gardens. Mount Vernon provides a glimpse into the life and times of Washington as a politician, a general and a farmer. The estate tour takes visitors through the main dining room, parlors, sitting rooms, kitchen and bedrooms furnished as they were in 1799. Outside, there are stables, barns, smokehouses, fields and gardens that were an important part of Washington’s daily life.

Seeing the beautiful setting and wonderful house and outbuildings makes Washington’s sacrifice for his country all the more impressive. He gave up a luxurious life on an 8,000-acre plantation to lead the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War and then again to serve as the first president of the United States. At the end of his service, Washington had only two years to enjoy his retirement at Mount Vernon before he passed away.

Though Thanksgiving wasn’t officially on the calendar during the mid-1800s, fall was always a time of feasting and entertainment on early-American plantations after the hard work of harvest was done. On Thanksgiving weekend, the Mount Vernon Inn serves a popular Thanksgiving buffet in six intimate dining rooms with two fireplaces, and the plantation house and gardens are open for tours. The following Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Mount Vernon offers a tour of the house, including the seldom-seen third floor, when it is lighted only by candles, as it was 200 years ago.

Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

This living museum in southern Massachusetts re-creates a New England village in the 1830s. Houses, barns and shops have been moved here from around New England to create the 200-acre museum. It was during the Sturbridge era, in the early-and mid-1900s, that many of our Thanksgiving traditions were formed.

Though no dinner is served at the Old Sturbridge Village Museum, there are demonstrations of cooking and preparations for the holiday over an open hearth and in old ovens. There is a sermon at the meetinghouse, as well as a shooting match, and costumed interpreters outline the function of each of the restored houses, farms and shops in the village.

Visitors learn how to push peas onto a knife with a two-tined fork and then eat them off the fork (no easy matter). Cooks explain how village women figured out oven temperature without a thermometer. And the secret of making Marlborough pudding, an open-faced apple pie that was once the most popular Thanksgiving dish, is revealed.

For the Thanksgiving meal, head into the modern town of Sturbridge and dine in one of the period inns or restaurants that still evoke the mid-1900s. The Salem Cross Inn, in West Brookfield, and the Publick House, in Sturbridge, both offer evocative settings and traditional meals.

These four early-American experiences bring history into play during the Thanksgiving celebrations and make the day far more interesting than simply devouring Tom Turkey then playing couch potato. These restored villages give families an opportunity to learn about the founding and growth of our country and provide an atmospheric stage for one of our favorite holidays.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .